Holding On for Dear Life
Bill Mallonee Goes Back in Time

I made a startling omission from last week’s list of new upcoming music.

I forgot the new R.E.M. album.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, that’s just weird. I’m an avid R.E.M. fan, largely because they’re a splendidly adventurous group. Seldom will two R.E.M. albums in a row sound alike. Despite whatever indie-folk-rock ghetto they’re often shoved into, Athens’ favorite sons have a dizzying array of styles to their credit, and recently, rather than show their age, the band has begun branching out even more, with the electro-chill of Up and the Beach Boys pop of Reveal.

The new one is called Around the Sun, and it’s apparently a rock record. The last time they promised one of those, they delivered Monster, the low point of their catalog by a long way, so this could be a bad thing. Still, I’m fascinated, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s Michael Stipe’s lyrics, which are reportedly political and angry this time out. And second, there’s the wild card – Bill Rieflin, sitting in on drums for the departed Bill Berry. Rieflin, you may recall, has been the drummer for Ministry for many years. Seems an odd pairing, and I can’t wait to hear how they worked him into the mix.

Anyway, that’s out October 5, the same day as the new Tom Waits, the new Cake, the new Fatboy Slim and the return of William Shatner. Who says this isn’t the Marvel age of empty checking accounts and unpaid utility bills?

* * * * *

Speaking of Athens, Georgia, we come to Bill Mallonee.

I realized last week that I couldn’t discuss Mallonee and his new album, Dear Life, without talking about songwriting, and about why certain types of songs just don’t work for me. There are as many different ways to approach songwriting as there are songs, really, but there are only a couple of starting points, and when it comes to pop music, those points boil down to lyrics and music. Any songwriter can tell you that one of the two usually comes first, and most would agree that you can choose which skill, lyric writing or musical composition, to focus on and nurture.

There are those who believe that a song is finished when the lyrics are written, and that the music is merely the setting for the poem. The most obvious example of the lyric-based songwriting style is Bob Dylan, who often repeated two or three chords for 10 minutes while he recited his lyrics over them. There are also those who believe that the music is the essential component, and lyrics are extraneous. Some of these folks will work for months on a composition and sully it in 10 minutes with tossed-off words. Again, the most obvious example here is Frank Zappa, who rarely uttered a serious word in his whole career, but whose music was incredibly difficult to compose, and similarly difficult to perform.

For most of my life, I have swung towards the music-first end of the spectrum. I am a melody addict, and I listen to music to hear tunes and chord progressions I haven’t heard before. I will follow someone like Andy Partridge down whatever rabbit hole he chooses to scurry, because I respect the hell out of his melodic sensibility. Likewise, the first six or so Ani DiFranco albums leave me cold.

And I admit, this tendency has prevented me from enjoying or appreciating some of the most revered music in the world. For example, I can’t stand the Rolling Stones. I’ve listened to the records, and they don’t give me anything I haven’t heard – it’s all blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, which isn’t intrinsically awful, but doesn’t hold up for me over the length of an album. (And Mick can’t sing, at all, but that’s another column entirely…) I also dislike the aforementioned Mr. Dylan, and have always preferred reading his work to listening to it. I just don’t get why some of his albums are so universally lauded.

I have explored this territory before, I know, but this is not the same old lyrics vs. music debate. The question here is, can brilliant poetry elevate uninspired music into the realm of great songwriting? There is, undeniably, a “classic” sound that some lyrics-first musicians try to emulate, and that involves a certain set of chord progressions and a certain amount of repetition. This sound comes off as comforting, honest and direct, and best of all, it’s very easy to write, musically speaking. Simple chords and simple structures let the focus fall on the lyrics, which many people believe is where it should be.

Which brings me to Bill Mallonee, again. For more than a decade, Mallonee fronted the Vigilantes of Love, an Americana-style band who worked that classic sound from every angle, while keeping the lyrics in the spotlight. Mallonee’s songs often found that little melodic twist that set them apart, though, and of course his lyrics are wonderful. Still, even though Mallonee is a great songwriter, he tends to write the same kind of great song over and over. To his credit, he seems to realize this – after peaking in 1999 with the amazing, indispensable Audible Sigh, he began tackling a more British pop sound, both on the last VoL album, Summershine, and his three solo albums. He hit a goldmine every once in a while, too, most notably on Fetal Position, his first (and best) solo record.

The thing is, Audible Sigh remains the obvious peak – it’s the album its predecessors were building towards, and the one with which its successors have been unflatteringly compared. That would be fine – few musicians can say they’ve created even one masterpiece – if Mallonee weren’t still struggling to make a living as a singer/songwriter. He should have been able to live comfortably off the sales of a record as good as Audible Sigh for decades, but alas, very few people heard it, and very few people bought it.

And I can’t blame him for diverting his musical journey back towards his greatest success, but it’s kind of startling to hear that he’s gone back to acoustic Americana on Dear Life. He hasn’t returned to Audible Sigh’s electric sound, either, but to before that, as if he’s hoping he can rejoin his own creative streak mid-stream. Dear Life is primarily solo acoustic folk, with some country inflections, and despite its drawbacks, I have to say this is one of the purest portraits of himself that Bill Mallonee has ever made. It is naked and open and honest throughout.

It’s also a lot better than I originally thought, which is why I couldn’t review it last week. The problem was me – I was expecting Audible Sigh, as I do every time, and unsurprisingly I discovered that Dear Life is not that album. (Mallonee himself compared the two records on his website, which didn’t help.) It does, however, have its own substantial charms, and if you listen closely enough, you can hear that Mallonee has folded in some of his more melodic leanings of late into the high plains folk here. He reaches for that “She’s So Liquid” falsetto a few more times than you’d expect, and he works in some neat and tuneful surprises.

Case in point – “Who Will You Love” is a bluegrass frolic, complete with bouncing bass lines, but instead of sticking with the classic chords, he goes some neat places, particularly on the lines about hanging the moon and halogen angels. A song like “High and Lonesome” takes its country strum through some terrific minor dips, and soars on its sad, sighing violin. And despite its unfortunate spelling, “The Kidz on Drugz (or Life)” is one of Mallonee’s most haunting acoustic pieces, right up there with “Resplendent.” These songs take time to work their way in, but once they’re there, they make you wonder why you didn’t notice their beauty before.

But Mallonee’s focus is squarely on the lyrics, as always, and they’re pretty much terrific. He steps out of the gate with a 9/11 reference on track one: “After all the towers have fallen and all the presidents gave packed up and left town…” But instead of offering a broad political statement, he waves off expectations in “High and Lonesome”: “People seem to want substantial periods at the end of my every sentence.” Instead, Mallonee prefers to sing about personal matters of love and faith, and of loss and dashed expectations. He even describes his own process as eloquently as one could on “After All This Dust Settles Down”: “You cut yourself on dreams, it’s broken glass you can’t quite escape, so you gather up the shards and sprinkle them on magnetic tape…”

The very sound of this record aches along with the words. Mallonee’s voice has taken on a drained melancholy quality as he’s aged, and with often little to back him save spare acoustic guitars and violins, you can really hear his tired, yearning heart come through. The album ends with “Songwriter (Numb),” perhaps the most despairing tune in his catalog: “And even when it got cold, I hardly knew I’d died, I guess you go a little numb before going empty on the inside…” This song is just Mallonee and his acoustic, and its starkness is surprising.

But you really have to listen to the lyrics to appreciate “Songwriter,” because it caps off a three-song string of banal music in the album’s final stretches. And here’s the big question, come round again: Is “Songwriter” a great song just because it has terrific lyrics and a great performance? I found it difficult to appreciate, not because I couldn’t wrap my brain around it, but because I have heard these chords in this order hundreds of times.

And by the time I reach the final three songs, I always find myself looking back over the album and coming up with the same criticism. “Ready and Red-Eye” sounds like an old VoL tune – or rather, like 50 old VoL tunes. “Carol Merrill” gets jumbled up in my memory with a dozen other songs, so familiar is its melody. “I Will Never Be Normal (After This)” is a finger-picked Dylan-esque piece that ends up mimicking, not expanding. Despite some good tunes in the middle, Mallonee’s work here sounds either like that of other Americana artists, or like that of his younger self.

In the end, that’s my main issue with Dear Life – it doesn’t offer anything new. Perhaps it’s not supposed to, and perhaps for most of Mallonee’s audience, the swell lyrics and the comforting classic sound will be enough. I think this is a good record, but in a lot of ways I think it’s the same kind of good record Bill Mallonee has made many times before. The trappings may be different – this is the most unadorned and stark album he has yet made, especially in its latter half – and the words may have changed, but the songs remain the same.

I don’t want to discourage people from trying Bill Mallonee’s music. If you’re only going to try one, it should be Audible Sigh, though. Mallonee would probably be upset at me for urging people to buy a six-year-old album over the new one – and if you like Sigh, you’ll probably like Dear Life, too, so don’t let me stop you – but as I said, most musicians don’t even make one masterpiece. That he hasn’t topped it since is unfortunate, but unsurprising. Dear Life is a worthy attempt, a stab at wrapping the old and new influences together, and while I’d like to say that its simple veneer hides some unexpected delights, it’s more accurate to say that it’s not a veneer. It’s honest and uncomplicated, literate and heartfelt, and if that’s all you need, then you will love it.

Next week, Ronnie Martin.

See you in line Tuesday morning.