A Short Review of Bill Mallonee’s “Winnowing”

…[T]he apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together… Jane Austen, Persuasion

I have been listening to Bill Mallonee for a long time. He is one of the most challenging and rewarding songwriters alive. He has crafted song after song, each representing some portion of his steady, integrated-and-integrating vision of things. That vision is complicated, prismatic; it has been salted with fire over years, burning away everything self-indulgent or unrealizable in it. What remains now is a vision that demands comparison with the visions of great religious and literary work: the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, and James of the New; the essays of Montaigne; Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and Rasselas; Eliot’s Four Quartets. Mallonee’s themes are best captured by phrases borrowed from Johnson: the hunger of the imagination, the treachery of the human heart, the stability of truth. To take up the last—Mallonee’s vision never flinches, not before pain, not before ugliness, not before profound, pervasive sorrow. The homely tragedy of daily human life is never overlooked but is constantly acknowledged. Still, there is no wallowing, no sentimental stroking of the songwriter’s or the listener’s emotions. No, the goal is always (to again borrow from Johnson) the just representation of general nature, because ultimately, in art, only that pleases at all or pleases for long.

His latest album, “Winnowing”, takes the listener from Dover Beach to the high desert, from Matthew Arnold to the Good Book.

I can show you where my heart was broken there on Dover Beach
Truth receded like a wave, to farther out of reach
Love may bring the tide back in; hard to live, easy to preach
out in the cold (“Dover Beach”)

The album is a prolonged self-sifting, self-examination. All the sifting and examining may not effect happiness, but Mallonee will avoid false affirmations—better to affirm nothing, or very little, than to sham. (No matter where I sing these songs/
the devil’s always at my sleeve
.) Self-delusion does finally effect unhappiness. There is no ignoring or downplaying the “Locust Years”—they visit, sometimes they stay:

locust years
there’s no words on his tongue
he grins as he passes
from his horse made of bones
like a bird of prey
picking you clean
locust years
living under your skin (“Locust Years”)

Our problem—Mallonee’s, mine, yours–reveals itself as an inability to recognize the drift of life, of our own lives. We wrongly imagine our connection with the world. Worse, we see what we see through a glass, darkly—through the road grime and bug spatter collected as we have traveled. But we keep the glass because, while it distorts, it also protects. We seek a light we fear to find.

There was that moment when our paths crossed
We all need a place that’s warm
You’re seeking such illumination
like a beacon in the storm
And if that world was going somewhere
Well, there are just some things you ignored
and it all flooded through the windshield
of an old beat up Ford (“Old Beat Up Ford”)

Songs like “Old Beat Up Ford” force us to ask Solzhenitsyn’s question about our lives: “Good Lord, how could we have missed the main point of the whole thing?”

Mallonee knows we live in dark times, a new Dark Age. Of course all times are dark. But it does seem like our darkness comprehends whatever light shines in it less even than other darknesses.

The lights that shine in our Dark Age are others, those we love. They are our way, truth and life. Love transfigures us, turns our lead to gold. In the transport of love, in the loss of ourselves, we can find what we need. But that transport has been escorted out—shown the door. Love we reduce to a coolly objective lust, to desire that commits us to nothing except efficient satisfaction. The things we discarded as unreal, as disguises, masks and games, turn out to stabilize our lives. But we imagined we could see through them, and could live out a complete disillusionment, without becoming demoralized. But with the “masks” off, it turns out we are not dispassionate rationalists but mystics and freaks. To quench the spirit is to strangle ourselves. We know everything but believe nothing.

In the new dark age
Nobody puts up a fight
In the new dark age
You’ll see no flares in the night
The only lamp burning bright…is you

All the masks came off
All disguises were dropped
The game was declared over
Love was escorted out
There was hardly a shout
I’ll take the crimson & clover

We’re all mystics & freaks
With the spirit beneath
Deeper than any ocean
Let the string section “riff”
Seal it up with a kiss
Honey, we are all golden

In the new dark age
no one trusts anyone
In the new dark age
they forget to have fun
The only light from the sun…is you
In the new dark age
nobody puts up a fight
In the new dark age
you’ll see no flares in the night
The only lamp burning bright…is you (“In the New Dark Age”)

Over and over, Mallonee reminds us that we have our lives, to whatever extent we do or can have them, only insofar as we can capture them in our moral imagination. If our lives elude our moral imagination, we cannot have them. We live them, but we do not have them. To capture our lives in our moral imagination we do not daydream or fantasize, but employ our negative capability—our capability for responsively contemplating our lives without attempting to refine them into systematicity, to snip off their loose ends, to colorize their blacks, greys and whites.

Mallonee calls the album an autumn album, and it is autumnal from beginning to end.  Autumn seasons each song.  Everything takes place in the fall.

The music is pure America, classic.  Simple beautiful melodies move beneath Mallonee’s wan, warm voice.  The delivery is earnest and thoughtful.  Mallonee’s guitar work is a highlight of the album, as is the mellowing sound of an organ and a harmonica. Though this is contemporary music, it is also timeless–it could have been made years ago, it could still be waiting to be made.  The songs last longer than usual these days.  Mallonee is in no hurry to tell you what he has to tell you.  He adjusts his seat, stretches his legs, and lets the words and the music come.

Much, much more could be said about this album. It withstands criticism. I will not say more now.   As with most of Mallonee’s work, there is a point at which there is only his music and the silence. And his music teaches that the silence comes first, and that when the music ends, the silence remains.

4 responses

  1. ‘The lights that shine in our Dark Age are others . . . We know everything but believe nothing.’

    Was a very good paragraph. Thank you.

  2. Dr. Jolley,
    thank you, thank you, thank you
    …I just read your review of Winnowing.
    I am immensely honored to have someone dive in and “get it.” This has to be, hands down, the most articulate and perceptive review I’ve ever received from anyone, anywhere.
    An honor.
    I hope our paths cross soon…

    bill mallonee

  3. Reblogged this on Words on the Word and commented:
    This review of a Bill Mallonee record transcends the genre of music review. Beautiful, compelling, moving. A more than fitting piece for my first time pushing that little “Reblog” button that WordPress offers.

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