Peter Coviello at the LARB:
Now, listen: you don’t have to persuade me of the foolhardiness of leaning too earnestly into the elliptical, undergraduate-Ashberian lyrical misdirections of Stephen Malkmus, the band’s movie-star handsome singer and chief songwriter. But let’s indulge ourselves, just this once. For “Unfair” is, quite unambiguously, a song about something: it’s a song about California. Or rather (like the song “Two States” from their previous record), “Unfair” is a song about the maldistribution of California’s resources across the north-south axis. “Manmade deltas and concrete rivers,” Malkmus says (though he drawls it Dylanishly into “riv-ahhs”). “The south takes what the north delivers.” And that’s “Unfair”: Chinatown, basically, as two-minute punk rock diatribe.
The punkishness, it turns out, is what matters most. Because if I continue to adore this song, it is not least because it marks the moment in the whole decade-plus career of this band where the impress of punk rock is, I think, the least mitigated and diffused.