Personnel: Stephen Malkmus (vocals, guitar, piano, Mellotron); Mike Clark (keyboards); Jake Morris (drums, percussion, background vocals); Joanna Bolme (background vocals).
Audio Mixer: Adam Lee.
Recording information: Halfling Studios (2017); Shamrock Justice West (2017).
Sparkle Hard comes into focus slowly and stately, coalescing around crawling piano chords that soon get blown to bits by guitars -- thereby offering a neat encapsulation of how this, the seventh album Stephen Malkmus has made since disbanding Pavement in 1999, walks a fine line between the familiar and the unexpected. Upon the first spin, Sparkle Hard seems to veer all over the place, bouncing from the finely etched pop of "Future Suite" to the Teutonic jam of "Bike Lane," eventually winding up on the country-rock ramble of "Refute," a duet with Kim Gordon, who has never before been heard with anything resembling a twang (and likely never will again). The diversity dazzles, particularly as it's filled with elegant new accents to make familiar settings seem fresh, even when they're firmly within Malkmus' laconic wheelhouse; witness his pitch-shifted vocals on "Rattler," which give the song's robotic rhythms a woozy sway, or how the pastoral beginnings of "Kite" get blown out with psychedelic wah-wahs and rushed rhythms. Such flair suggests that Malkmus designed Sparkle Hard as a way to flex his musical muscles, but for as alluring as the album's sound is -- and the record lives up to its title, glistening brightly with its panoramic guitars and coiled rhythms -- it remains compelling upon repeated plays because, beneath the shimmering surface, this is not only one of his best collections of songs, but a record that acts like a casual summation of his enduring obsessions. His youthful sneer has mellowed so much that he now sounds sincere, which helps cast his willful weirdness in a different light. Malkmus may still stand on the outside smirking, poaching different elements of the underground and mainstream, assembling them in a fashion that's undeniably unique, but the craft and cleverness of Sparkle Hard can't disguise the simple fact that he means this music, man. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Rolling Stone - 3.5 stars out of 5 -- "The album's sweetest moment might be 'Middle America.' It's Malkmus at his most straightforwardly graceful, strumming a folkie melody like a guy in his backyard figuring life out at his own easeful pace, balancing everyday worry with goofy sweet nothings."
Spin - "Malkmus makes sure to remind you that he's still a `70s rock enthusiast who is not above a show-boating guitar move, like playing it behind his neck, with the closing seven-minute freakout 'Difficulties -- Let Them Eat Vowels.'"
Uncut - "Malkmus's dreamy tumble of tranquil and more turbulent images in 'Solid Silk' take on a more ethereal aspect thanks to King's lovely, Robert Kirby-like arrangement."
Paste (magazine) - "It is warm and approachable, filled with punchy songs, adventurous arrangements, a few admirable experiments and enough memorable moments to demand repeat plays."
Clash (Magazine) - "As with most of his oeuvre, there is a celebration and slight repudiation of rock tropes....An assuredly sparkly album."