Our tears they speak a language that's uniquely all their own... "Dover Beach (Out in the Cold)" on Winnowing Bill Mallonee & The Darkling Planes
In his splendid theological study of literature, Frederick Buechner uses as the title a famous line from Shakespeare's King Lear: Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say. In another book -- I mentioned it in my BookNotes list of books about evangelism last month -- Buechner's title is golden: Tell It Like It Is: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, Fairy Tale. He explores the characteristics of these genres and shows how the gospel story itself can be described in these enduring forms.
Music can help us "speak what we feel" perhaps more viscerally than novels. As I wrote a few days ago about Beverly Lewis' lovely visit to our store to speak of her new Amish novel The River (Bethany House; $15.99) -- which has some dark currents sweeping through it -- I did some free association to link it to Bruce Springsteen's anguished song "The River." Talk about speaking what we feel, about redemption somehow coming in the form of tragedy. "Is a dream a lie if it doesn't comes true, or is it something worse?" Most, but not all, evangelical "Christian fiction" ties things up pretty nicely, almost unable to host Springsteen's question (even though the Bible offers these very sorts of questions!) Now, I'm glad there is reconciliation at the end of Lewis' The River and - spoiler! - that a modern bit of technology, a pacemaker, is involved.) This is helpful and inspiring and has its place in one's reading diet.
But some of our best artists know that the life is hard, and they help us cope, not with easy answers about the human condition. I hardly need to say it, but that life can be a trail of tears is also true for people of faith (perhaps especially so for people who have tasted glory and trust God's promises and seek real joy.) Need I really say that it is good to be honest about our doubts? Does your throat not quiver when you sing that line "I'm prone to wander, Lord, I feel it"? We don't need to valorize or romanticize our pain or foolishness, but it does help to give voice to our disappointments and troubles, to read books and listen to artists that walk the dark side of the street, who tell it like it is. They help us speak not what we "ought" but allow us to be honest about our own fears and foibles, living as we do in a very broken world.
Brian Walsh has written brilliantly about this - see his meditation on Bruce Cockburn's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" alongside Psalm 137 in his "Wine Before Breakfast" sermon. Perhaps you should read this, first, a short meditation on "Exile, Song, and Rage." In fact, you could read his whole book about the prophetic imagination of Cockburn in his remarkably generative study Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos; $19.00) which I describe in detail, in a long review, here.
(Big aside: Cockburn's hefty auto-biography called Rumours of Glory: A Memoir is coming out from HarperOne ($28.99) the first week of November, and we are taking pre-orders for it, at 20% off. It is sure to be provocative. There will also be a commemorative boxed set selling for something like $150.00 which includes all the songs Bruce mentions in the book, in order, making it a 9 disc soundtrack. The admittedly pricy boxed set also includes 16 previously unreleased or rare tracks, a 90 page booklet, photographs, and a full live concert DVD film during his "Slice O Life" tour. We'll have it on sale, too. Send us a note for more info.)
Which brings me to my review of the harrowing new Bill Mallonee album. Almost.
Look. I am a huge, huge U2 fan. We carried Boy and the others when we first opened in '82, right, alongside Petra and Amy Grant (and, yes, all of Bruce Cockburn's catalog) and we took great joy in introducing many folks to the boys from Dublin's early work, and continued to stock all they've done. I am still just blown away by nearly every album - yes, I love Rattle and Hum and yes, I am even moved by some of the hyper-irony of the electro-weirdness of the Zoo TV years. I saw them in Philly during the Joshua Tree tour when Springsteen showed up. And I can't tell you how many times I've just wept and wept listening to that sad list of names at the end of "Walk On." Haven't you? How can you not?
But I just can't write about the new iphone Songs of Innocence release because I am absorbed in listening over and over to what has become my favorite album of the year -- the incredibly poignant release by the tell it like it is, speak what we feel, gospel as tragedy Americana/rootsy graveling desert beauty of Bill Mallonee and his new record Winnowing created with his musical partner and wife, Murriah Rose, singing together as the Darkling Planes.
To distract me from a new U2 album is quite a feat. And Bill and Mariah do so, mister.
I find it hard to review music. I can explain books, but it is difficult to capture the aural experience of music, those wailing Rickenbacker guitar solos, those acoustic chords that bring to mind "All Along the Watchtower" but aren't that, that crisp moment when a syllable is hit in falsetto, that whispered one-two-three-four that launches so quickly the next track, that time when the loud harmonica merges with the wailing electric guitar, and we don't quite know which instrument is which.
We shouldn't separate the lyrics from the music, the timbre of the vocals, the whine, and the shout and the whispers, the instruments, the arrangements, the production and engineering; as we talk about records, we must remember that the words are part of songs. But how to tell you about it, entice you to listen? For those that don't know Bill's large body of work (50 + albums, most now available as downloads, some as real CDs, this new one even available in vinyl) I think the closest comparison to put you in the ball park of the sound is Neil Young, with moments of Jackson Browne at his best, maybe Tom Petty. (And, oh, how Bill's voice ends each time in the chorus of "Got Some Explainin' to Do" sounds so much like Neil!) The fuzzy guitars, the distortion that is so gripping, the high and lonesome beauty given a rock and roll edge. it is very, very moving for those that appreciate that school of alt-rock. You can hear tons of his songs for free at his Bandcamp site which I show below.
My own tastes include artists in this very orbit: Robbie Robertson (and the entire catalog of The Band) and CSNY and Mark Knopfler, Jackson, and Americana stuff, channeled nowadays by the likes of The Civil Wars, Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers. And did I mention Rattle and Hum? I appreciate smart, writerly indie bands from The Head and the Heart to The National, The Airborne Toxic Event, and older school passionate singer-songwriters like Peirce Pettis, Phil Maideria, country-ish Buddy Miller. Bill is louder and rougher than Iron and Wine and Fleet Foxes, but I had to mention them. Can you relate?
If you like rowdy, electric finger-picking,
fuzzy, jangly, Byrds-like soaring guitars, and vocals that can at time nearly
be called Dylan-esque, you should pick up Bill Mallonee. Founder and front man
of the stunning Vigilantes of Love, they were hot in the glory days of the
Athens, Georgia music scene, preaching the gospel in harsh, acoustic songs with
punk energy, allusive, dark lyrics, deep in the club scene that gave us REM
and the Indigo Girls, drawing insight about faith and songwriting from the
likes of the late great Mark Heard.
REM's Peter Buck co-produced a critically acclaimed album, Buddy and Julie Miller joined in occasionally, the world-class alt-country legend Emmy Lou Harris did background vocals. Paste Magazine declared him to be one of the top 50 songwriters of all time. VOL days long behind him, his output continued for a decade or two of being on the road, putting out downloadable, low-fi, self-produced mostly acoustic WPA series all with artwork cuffed from the old Works Projects Administration (renamed in 1939, Bill might tell ya, as the WPA) of FDR.
Bill has always had this sense of being rooted in the past. From songs about the dust bowl to songs inspired by Jack Kerouac, from allusions to miners or farmers (one great album, just for instance, is called Victory Garden) or historical incidents ("Andersonville" about the horrific southern civil war POW camp still sometimes shows up in his live shows) or several utterly romantic songs about the WW II-era romance of his parents, he, more than nearly any folk/rock performer I know, can be called rooted (even if his roots too often have him on the road; in a line on Winnowing he says "once I mistook her for my home.") Just look at that album cover from Audible Sigh, that historic train wreck.
This may not be the old-timey roots music with a lot of banjos or Appalachian fiddles, but the sound and tone and lyrical allusions are often from other very American decades, from hardscrabble people and places from the heartland. (The way he often says, about somebody, "kid" or "mister," sounds like some wiser blue-collar elder talk, doesn't it?) Again, think of the Steinbeck vision of Woody Guthrie, more fiery then Springsteen's Dakota, maybe more like his Seeger Sessions.
In this new record, set clearly in his high desert home in New Mexico, Mallonee mentions horses, a pick-ax, pistols under waistcoats, a skeleton key, a boxer (who "grabs all the prize money - and a few other things") and somebody with "an ace of diamonds up the sleeve" which somehow perfectly creates the feel and mood of this song cycle about being down and out, tumbling down out West, smack in the middle of (as the second song puts it) "Those Locust Years."
"There's nothing left in Oklahoma," he sings in "Tap Your Heart On Your Shoulder," "on your right hand or your left/ we took God's good green earth and turned it into sand." Yeah, so that's it, a whole lot of remorse, for the loner who has to move on, and, it seems, for the whole cosmos which is scarred, somehow, and what approaches despair. But yet, this song is a plea to "tap your heart on its shoulder and see if she's still awake." Listen to that line a coupla times if you don't have time for a spiritual retreat or money for a shrink!
Bill's not giving up, and in this jaded, secular age, he is nearly an evangelist, worth more to un-churched ears then a dozen slick worship bands with goatees and nicely torn jeans and big amps.
The first song is sublime, and, like nearly all of his tunes these days, insists on a lot of harsh reality, but with glimmers of light. The song is subtitled "Out in the Cold" and that is the theme. It is his life, these days, road-weary, world-weary, tired but sober, feeling under-rated, left out, yet committed to finding hope where one can. ("No, I am not a scoffer withholding my thanks," he sings, believably, "My purse? It is empty but my heart overflows its banks.") The proper title of this wonderful opener is "Dover Beach" and is inspired by the famous Matthew Arnold poem about the restlessness brought on as the waves of meaning receded in the modern world.
I can show you where my heart was broke there on Dover Beach
Truth receding like a wave/too farther out of reach
Love may bring the tide back in/hard to live, easy to preach
Mr. Mallonee's raw song-writing and passionate performance isn't exactly depressing although he does confess much, a practice that many of us might be well be instructed to own up to, as well. He sings,
Every conviction that I lived by, every truth that I was taught,
Every sermon that I sat through; well, it was all for naught.
I was always pretty bad at carryin' my cross
Another slow, sad song achingly, but yet somehow beautifully sung, offers the chorus, like a litany of confession -- "Now You Know." Perhaps it is more than you want to know. Or perhaps it can serve as your own confession, too. "I can feel it all disintegrate/like paper in the flame." This is a line, by the way, following an allusion to the pride of warriors - Caesar on his steed, crossing his rubicon.
After speaking of the "sadness of this place" ("Deserts speak in whispers but she rarely shows her face/ They say that you get used to it, ah, but I've not found that the case") he sings, "No matter where I sing these songs/the devil's always at my sleeve." Now you know.
Speaking, literally, of the devil, one brilliant song - for those that know his work, it almost reminds me of "Bolt Action" or some of the louder ones from the Blister Soul-era - is called "Got Some Explainin' to Do (Gotta Give the Devil His Due.)" The stanzas (without too much gruesomeness, thankfully) highlight examples of brokenness and sin in the world: "No matter what the disguise is, well ya gotta give the devil his due. But whoever he is, has got some explain' to do." That's for darn sure.
He gets as preachy as he does on this CD at the end of this song, countering the works of the devil with this cry:
Time for banishing darkness
Time for doing what is right
Time for loving the planet
Time for stepping into the light.
Winnowing isn't all lament and remorse, though. There is a lovely song about what I'm sure is a real tavern, somewhere out there, called the Dew-Drop Inn. "Store-front glass & red brick, non-descript with a few old ghosts roamin' round." But there, "every one's yer friend and everybody's got a story unsung." There's some sad stuff there, too ("Sam's tending bar, brother, he's seen it all, seen the good die young" and their the community can realize "Some dreams get born but, most get beaten' out /And some folks forget how to dream at all.") But, yet, "Stories got told and drinks were poured and for a moment? It was Heaven here..."
As in many of his songs, there is this narrative of the broken and ordinary redeemed by community, even if of misfits, and then also his own personal sense of being loved. The sub-title and refrain here is "I love you just because." Is it sung to his wife and band partner Murriah Rose or to the loners and oddballs hanging out at the Dew Drop? Maybe both.
Similarly, in a beautiful, passionate song, "In the New Dark Age" he sings -- lamenting the loss of a culture of love and hope and change -- "the only lamp burning bright/is you." Murriah? Jesus? You and me? I don't know. He sings the words briskly, building the case, singing, "the game was declared over, love was escorted out, there was hardly a shout/I'll take the crimson & clover." (Don't you love that reference to the flower-power, Tommy James hit?) Dark as it may sound, this is a rowdy, fun song, Beatle-esque, trippy with organ and what almost sounds like backwards electronic stuff, like it would fit on his wonderful Locket Full of Moonlight album or VOL's Summershine, two of my own all time favorite CDs.
He says, wrongly, I think, "in the new dark age, no one puts up a fight." Ahh, but he does, doesn't he? -- even if he will go down swinging. Mallonee's art testifies, bears witness to his fight. This record makes you want to join him there, makes us want to be that light burning bright. Is it a plea to his remaining fans? An altar call? "All the dominoes fell/we sent under a spell/and all hell. broke. lose." It is a lament, but also an invitation to be the light, I swear it is.
"Hall Full of Mirrors/Room Full of Woe" sounds ominous enough, but, I'm telling you, it is an encouraging song, great melodies, great ringing guitar riffs, evocative lyrics. It's one of the more upbeat tunes, despite the use of the word "woe" -- and well-produced (Bill and Murriah as the Darkling Planes play everything) and it is splendid. The acoustic guitar at the end trails out with chords from "All Along the Watchtower" that just seals the thing, turning it into an anthem. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Several reviewers have highlighted the gorgeous "Blame it on the Desert (Whisperin')" which is surely one of the album's centerpieces. In bouncy, countrified boogey he sings,
What the mystic knows
What the Good Book does proclaim
You only ever own
What you give away
Blame it on the spirit
Blame it on the red wine
But then again,
Blame it on the desert whisperin'
Mr. Mallonee then sweetly sings a quick line, "the mantra of the asphalt/road-side diner, communion table" and reminds us of the Christ-like instruction "take only what you need/leave what you are able." We are naturally led to think of the wine of Eucharist, of grace, of gospel. Or, then again, maybe it is just the desert whisperin' -- which the Bible itself says is God's own Word, eh? (Calvin Seerveld, referring to the lines in Psalm 19 which tells us that the creation speaks, calls it "God's glossalia.") Yes, Bill has heard, and brings to us, The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God, the God of the desert whisperin'.
When Bill sings "what the Good Book does proclaim" it makes me grin, brings me a joy each time. Not only is "the Good Book" an old, rural colloquialism, the "does" just nails it. Who talks like this - Abraham Lincoln? Woody Guthrie? Your great grandma? Yet, it isn't affectation. Bill is firmly situated in the current century - there are lines about duo-jets and the 1%. But he's also "betting the farm, babe" on some kind of old wisdom, some deep truth gleaned from his desert, dust-bowl (locust) years.
The last song may be an allegory, or
may serve that way - I suppose he didn't quite mean it as such, but, then again, who knows?
The first line is, with his keen ability to create the image of a place,
about a town in Oklahoma called Dalhart.
It sounds just like dull heart.
"If I ever make it out of Dalhart/to a place where I can stand tall/a horse would do quite nicely/but if I have to...I'm gonna crawl."This is one hell of a post-modern Pilgrims Progress, from Dover Beach to making it out of the dull heart of Dalhart.
It is the journey of many of us, I suspect. He sings, obtusely, of what may be the "hound of heaven" (the poet's phrase he has used on other albums) singing "whatever keeps tugging at your sleeve/this old flesh and blood has gotta find a reason to believe." Maybe this is your experience; Something tugging at your sleeve, Christ-haunted, restless, yet not giving up on the search. Give Winnowing repeated listens, and something will break open. Maybe, with a little luck, even what the mystics know, what the Good Book does proclaim.
Thank you for reading my feeble effort to explain this artist's gifts to us, this music that means so much to me. Because others have said it more eloquently and with better insight, if you're interested, see these two excellent reviews from Wood Between the Worlds and from Lay It Down. Both are well worth reading.
Here is one of his many interviews, describing his history with VOL, his solo work, his concerns about the commodification of art, etc etc. Worth a read if you want his take on the not so recent past.
We stock his last two similarly great, jangly, alt-country rock CDs as well, The
Power and the Glory (2011) and Amber Waves (2012.) Order them all from us, on sale, for
$15.00 each. As Bill would say, "thank
you, ladies and gents."
And, if you order all three, we will throw in as a special bonus, an old Mark Heard CD that is sure to please. Bill would dig this promo, too, I'm sure.
If you want to see his many, many downloadable projects, visit his amazing bandcamp cite, here. But buy these three from us, please! $15.00 each.
Bill Mallonee CDs
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