“Here’s a Life… A Poured Out Cup”
A Review of
Ti Jean: Hearts Crossing the Center Line.
By Bill Mallonee
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
[ In this online issue, we bring you a change of pace:
reviews of two recent literary-themed albums.
This is one of them and
Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep is the other… ]
Hearts Crossing the Center Line.
Support the artist,
Download the full album
for only $5.50!!!
(also streaming on the same page
for your listening pleasure…)
I have been listening to the music of Bill Mallonee, and his early incarnations in the band The Vigilantes of Love, for almost twenty years now. Following in the faith-haunted footsteps of the Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Mallonee’s work has consistently mixed masterful storytelling with a deep, dark sense of our human brokenness and a glimmer of hope in the even deeper graces of God. For many years, he was – and probably still is – my favorite songwriter, but being in a state of life where I don’t listen to much music, and buy even less, I haven’t really kept up with his music for over five years. (Of course, I suspect even the most ardent music fans would struggle to keep up with Mallonee’s prolific work, accelerated it seems by economic woes to a frenetic pace of releasing four or five albums a year for the last few years). However, when I got wind that he had released an album of songs inspired by the life and work of Jack Kerouac earlier this year, I knew that this would be an album that I would need to own.
Mallonee got his start in the folk-rock scene of Athens, Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The album that gained him some initial notoriety outside Georgia was 1992’s Killing Floor, which was co-produced by the odd pairing of underground Christian rock phenomenon Mark Heard and Peter Buck of REM. Killing Floor was praised for its extraordinary songwriting and musicianship by both mainstream music critics and by the media of the burgeoning alternative Christian music scene. After releasing a few albums on major labels (including the noted Southern rock label, Capricorn) and getting burned repeatedly by these labels, Mallonee dropped the Vigilantes of Love name and launched out in 2000 as an independent artist, crisscrossing the nation’s highways in support of his music. In a 2006 Paste Magazine poll of “The 100 greatest living songwriters,” Mallonee ranked 65th, topping many household names. However, the untold story is that without Mallonee’s work, there may likely never even have been a Paste magazine, as many of its key writers and editors (Josh Jackson, Nick Purdy, Andy Whitman, Jason Killingsworth, Joe Kirk and even VOL-list moderator Robert Davis) connected on the Vigilantes of Love email list in the early- and mid-1990s.
It comes as little surprise that Mallonee would release a Kerouac-inspired album. Longtime fans will remember countless live versions of this album’s first song “Hard Luck and Heart Attack” (originally recorded on Mallonee’s album Audible Sigh), which would be accompanied by Mallonee waxing appreciatively on Kerouac’s life. Indeed, there are a number of key parallels between Kerouac and Mallonee, not least of which is a life characterized by being “on the road.” Both are extraordinarily prolific writers, filling notebook after notebook as they traversed the American landscape and both have a deep spiritual hunger that energizes their work. Their stories share a similar trajectory, after reaching some level of critical success, both writers plunged into years of struggle and heartbreak. In the liner notes, Mallonee states that he attempted here “to write all these songs from Jack’s mindset.” And he succeeds in this effort, offering a profoundly realistic portrait of Kerouac, one that depicts not only the familiar Kerouac but also draws upon lesser-known traits, such as his tenderness, that serve to make the Beat writer more robust, more human. Ti Jean, collects Kerouac-themed songs that Mallonee has penned over the years and adds a number of brand new songs into the mix.
The album starts with “Hard Luck and Heart Attack,” a throwback to Mallonee’s alt.country days that is based on Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, which Mallonee has long touted as a better portrayal of Kerouac than his widely-recognized On the Road. Next we find “Once Your Heart Gets Broken (It Just Keeps on Breaking),” an electric ballad that reminds one, in both its tune and its, lyrics of songs from Bill’s early album Blister Soul. With lines like “We’re all filling our holes/ We’re all picking our poisons,” this song highlights Mallonee’s gift of taking a particular story – in this case Kerouac’s – and making it harmonize with the chords of our universal human brokenness. The album’s third song, “Bakersfield Drifter” is a quiet acoustic number, featuring the harmonies of Mallonee’s wife Muriah Rose, that emphasizes Kerouac’s tenderness and his search for intimacy, which of course, also resonates with the universal human condition. Bill explores some deeply Christian themes in Kerouac here (as he observes in the liner notes), particularly that: “Kerouac was insatiable in his desire to be aligned with the simple and marginalized.”
In the middle of the album, we find “From the Beats Down to the Buddha,” a fine overview of Kerouac’s life and spirituality, characterized in the lines: “The mystery that pursued ya/from the Beats down to the Buddha/ and the things you never could quite let go of.” The Harvest-Era-Neil-Young-like “(I remember) All The Junkies and Exiles,” complete with rich harmonica playing, focuses on Kerouac’s friendship with William S. Burroughs, and reminds us of the deep contradictions that lay at the heart of both Beat writers – and all of our – being:
A Prayer to Gentle Jesus /
Tequila at the bar /
So you’ll remember/
To forget /
who you really are.
Most of the latter tracks of the album are quieter, and not quite as strong as the earlier songs, but nonetheless are still characteristically Bill Mallonee tunes, and as such are much better than the majority of pop music on the airwaves (and the internet) these days. The exception, however, is the last song in the collection, “Sober up,” which is an extraordinary piece of work. Mallonee has a tradition of ending albums with quiet, but pointed, soul-baring songs (e.g., “Judas Skin” on Slow Dark Train, “Farther up the Road” on To the Roof of the Sky or “Blister Soul (Reprise)”on Blister Soul.), and this song is another stellar piece in the same tradition. “Sober Up” is a poignant tribute not only to Kerouac but to Mallonee’s dad, whose lives and faith exhibited many similarities:
here’s a life…a poured out cup
the last page…hey, sober up
sober up…and get home
Ti Jean is a superb, cohesive collection of songs and well-worth the download (especially at the $5.50 price for the whole album!) For those unfamiliar with Mallonee’s work, this album is an excellent place to start; for those like myself who may have been familiar with Mallonee’s earlier work, but lost track in recent years, this album is an excellent bridge to reconnect with his work. Mallonee reminds us here why his songwriting has been heralded over the last twenty years, hook-filled tunes that linger in your mind combined with the sort of keen and twisted narratives that get right to the heart of what it means to be human in this dark and broken world, yet a world in which God quietly and mysteriously goes about the work of redemption.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com