Bill Mallonee is a man of many albums–some 80 by the last count.
His 2015 album Lands & Peoples begins with a folksy steel-string guitar and upright bass, lifted up to the stratosphere by ambient loops in the background.
Then, before you know it, it’s all about that bass and Mr. Mallonee’s tried and true vocals:
Somewhere between a border town and outside Santa Fe
Where the moonlight casts her heavy sigh and sent me on my way
You learn to trust the compass stars woven in her hair
And you learn to read the poetry hanging in the thin air
This has to be autobiographical. How else could a songwriter produce so many meaningful lyrics, album after album after album? He finds them “hanging in the thin air”–the secret revealed.
Why, then, is Mr. Mallonee still “a drifter”? The music industry embraced him at one time, especially through the commercial success he experienced with Vigilantes of Love. (Yes, I even remember hearing them on the radio!) Mr. Mallonee, however, still has friends in earthy places:
Should you become a drifter, the Good Earth is your friend
And you learn to read her language till the bitter end
His vulnerability on the first song is what his listeners have come to expect and love about his music:
There was a Rosary on the rearview; this time it went unsaid
But, if Love gets the last word, maybe, I’ll be “ok.”
After the opening confessional, Lands & Peoples moves into the grooving “Hide Me in the Darkness,” a song where the upbeat tempo and its closing lines are a mismatch:
Just look on the bright side…just tend to your homestead
Just look on the dark side…plow’s broke and the horses are dead
But this is Bill Mallonee, gosh darnit, so the juxtaposition is surely intentional. It does not go unnoticed by the careful listener.
I think my favorite track on the album is “Steering Wheel is a Prayer Wheel,” which calls to mind everything I loved about Winnowing, his previous full-length album. And have I mentioned how much I like the drumming on this album, at its best on this fourth track? Who does it, you ask? You guessed it–Mr. Mallonee himself, the same one who sings/prays:
There’s only so much you can freight on your heart’s shaky scaffold
And the steering wheel is a prayer wheel on the open road
One of Mr. Mallonee’s enduring gifts is being able to turn on a dime from a heart-wrenching tune like “String of Days” to the gratitude-laced “Sangre de Christos.” The former is an addict’s lament, bemoaning the “losing streaks” that go “on for miles.” But he follows it with a prayer of appreciation uttered “under the blue skies.”
For Mr. Mallonee, it seems, life is all of one piece–ups and downs, joys and sorrows, laments and thanksgivings. All of it is as “poetry hanging in the thin air,” and he continues to pull it out, jot it down, and sing it like he means it–because he does. I love that about him.
I found myself having a hard time hanging in there with the second half of the album, but even so, there are more gems:
There’s a story that I’m writing
Would you help me hold the pen?
On every page you will shine just like a star
And if that deck is stacked?
We’ll just laugh and leave the table
And leave the dealer all alone there in the dark
And then “Hope the Kids Make it Out” came on, the second to last track. Ah, those interlocking guitars! The pulsing bass, the perfectly toned drums… the rock and roll. That’s one of my favorite Bill Mallonee songs in the last decade.
I still have a preference for Winnowing, perhaps in part because I randomly stumbled on it late one Friday night, not having kept abreast of Mr. Mallonee’s catalogue for some time. I stayed up and listened to the whole thing all the way through, a moment of being-ministered-to that I needed then. So perhaps it’s unfair to compare this newer full-length to that work of genius, but so it goes.
One way or the other, Lands & Peoples is pretty easily a top 10 Bill Mallonee record, through and through. (About how many artists can you say their album is one of their best 10… and it be a compliment?) That he covers so much territory–drums, vocals, guitars, bass, etc.–makes it all the richer a listen, musically and lyrically.
You can learn more about the album, read the lyrics, and listen and download here.
My sincerest thanks to the musical powers that be, who gave me the album to download for review, but with no expectation as to the content of my write-up.