As I continue to ruminate on Bill Mallonee’s latest, it’s hard not to see it as a concept album of sorts, that concept being: Life is long. And hard.
Now, before you say, “Well duh, it’s a Bill Mallonee album,” hear me out.
It’s true that “existential [and sometimes literal] Dust Bowl tunes” have been Bill’s stock-in-trade for quite some time now. At the same time—and this was touched on in my review of his previous album, Lands and Peoples—with each passing album, the songs have become even less observational and even more lived-in. It’s music for the end of a long day—heck, a long life—when you’re finally slowed down enough to hear it properly.
That said: Despite the struggles that ooze out of Bill’s work, there’s hope. There’s always hope. And sometimes, even joy. That’s why I trust him—and why you should, too.
Bill Mallonee. Slow Trauma. CD $18; download $12.
So let’s touch on that hope and joy—and faith—a bit more. Because while there’s a deepening sense of mortality throughout this, there’s also an almost-constant reminder that life doesn’t end here, and that we can catch glimpses beyond this life even now. In the end, that’s what keeps us going even in this life. We get it all in the same package, good and bad, and a lot of this album is about accepting that truth.
And that truth is nowhere clearer than in the opening invocation, “One and the Same.” It’s probably the shortest song Bill’s ever recorded in 70+ albums, and yet it’s all you need to kick this thing off. Stately, slidy, “hi-strung” (Bill’s term) guitars ease in, as Bill croons in one of the highest vocal registers he’s ever hit:
What you hold onto
and what you let go of
and what you should give away
What’s gonna save you
and what makes you smile?
Sometimes, they are one and the same.
And with that, the Rickenbackers are off and ringing in “Only Time Will Tell,” a song of promise, both future and unfulfilled, about all of us who have ever come west in the hope of a new life: “You got your bonanza towns and turning up the soil / a kind of madness seems to take hold …. / Flash of a coin and we go under the spell / Where’s it all going? Only time will tell.”
From there, the next couple songs steer more strongly into that aforementioned mortality (and just plain human frailty) territory. Waiting for the Stone (to Be Rolled Away)” largely takes place in “the parking lot of the Holy Spirit Assembly / …a beacon in the desert night until the break of day,” and reminds us that “it’s so hard to get clean, and it’s hard to stay that way / Waiting for the stone to be rolled away.” Bill and wife Muriah Rose harmonize together nicely on the next one, the moody, cinematic, and probably self-explanatory “Hour Glass (Only So Many Grains of Sand).”
We get one of those literal Dust Bowl songs next with “WPA (When I Get to Where They’re Taking Us),” the story of a husband/father seeking work who-knows-where for who-knows-how-much: “Tossing you a scrap; throwing you a crust / it’s all ashes to ashes and dust to dust…. / Say good-bye to the family / I promise I’ll write regualrly / When I get to where they’re taking us.”
Just when things start to feel a bit too down, though, things perk back up with “Ironclad,” another song about leaving, but with a wry look at the past and with a better end in mind:
Wind the tape back to the very start
And offer up another broken heart
Georgia never was a place I could call home
Too many paths to navigate with those on the throne
And it’s good to know when to stay & when to flee
Every truth worth learning is right there on the streets.
The soulful, slightly trippy “High-Beam,” arguably my favorite here (but it changes near-daily), continues the threads of self-confession and departure:
My pen? It never went dry
This guitar could always woo
Till my soul my the color of box-car rust
& my heart was big-sky blue
Whatever is heavy as hell
is what you shouldn’t carry….
All this gettin’ born
and these roses & thorns, and the confusing parts
Well, I cobbled a life together with them
just to watch it fall apart.
“Doldrums in Denver” (an Allen Ginsburg reference) brings us back to the moodiness (“and it’s time you leave this town / there ain’t nothin’ for you now”), before looking up—and as way up as the man can muster—for the last couple songs. “The King’s Highway (A New Set of Wheels)” is really the first of two endings. After warning us, “You can go with God, or with a clenched fist,” we’re both cautioned and promised, “The Great Beyond is gonna have to wait another day / But you’ll get a new set of wheels on the King’s Highway…. Could be soon, could be far, but that’s not for me to say.”
And then there’s the official closer, “One Last Hill.” In it, Bill’s looking, praying for a longer glimpse of that Great Beyond, and hoping, praying that he’ll get it—even as he glimpses in the rear-view mirror at a past he’d wished had gone better in so many ways:
You know, it’s funny how things can get so damn misplaced
Where you bet your farm & where you place your faith…
Will the Gatekeeper know my name?
Will there be Someone to claim me for his own?…
Lord, gather me unto Thyself
when my wayward heart grows still
I just wanna see over that last hill.
And that’s something we should all be able to appreciate. So hit that link by the album cover above, and get appreciating.