America, American, Americana
[In what follows I weave together a response to Bill Mallonee’s latest album and answers he gave to me to questions I asked him about it. I thank him for his time.]
Our life drives us apart and forces us upon science and invention–away from touch. Or if we do touch, our breed knows no better than the course fiber of football. Though Bill Bird say that American men are the greatest business men in the world: the only ones who understand the passion of making money: absorbed, enthralled in it. It’s a game. To me, it is because we fear to wake up that we play so well. Imagine stopping money making. Our whole conception of reality would have to be altered…
…Who is open to injuries? Not Americans! Get hurt; you’re a fool. The only hero is he who is not hurt. We have no feeling for the tragic. Let the sucker who fails get his. What’s tragic in that? That’s funny! To hell with him. He didn’t make good, that’s all. –William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
Love has a million faces
But only one heart
Bill Mallonee sings this line with meditative authority on his darkly beautiful new album, Lands and Peoples. It is hard enough to pen a line like this, and another to sing it with such presence, to sing it with tested conviction. From Mallonee, the line is not sentimentality, but realism–it calls us to recognize that what concerns us is not human hearts, but the human heart. We are all possessed by love, for better or for worse. The line between good and evil cleaves the human heart itself; it does not cleave one heart from another. I can treat another human heart as alien only to the degree that I am alienated from my own.
The stocktaking gaze that Mallonee turned on himself and his art in last year’s Winnowing he now turns outward: Lands and Peoples stretches far and wide. Mallonee chases a dream of America on the album, asking why the dream has proven so hard to realize and why we cannot give it up, why it continues to inspire love even while much we have built in its name continues to spawn misery. “This new yet unapproachable America”–that is what our greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called his beloved country. He meant that America is always running ahead of itself, that it is always trying to become itself, that it always remains a problem for itself. Mallonee sees the country similarly. I asked him if he thought of the new album as a political album. His answer was No.
Political albums bore the hell out of me. I wanted to ask the deeper, evaluating questions in the form of small, individual stories/songs. I wanted to hold up a bit of a mirror to ourselves. Do we like what we see? We live in a system. Is the system working? This grand experiment we call democracy: is it playing out well? If it is working, is it working for all? If not, why not?
The album does not take political sides, left or right, but expresses a deep unhappiness with what politics has become, left and right. Mallonee rightly deplores the vice that seems all-too-often to characterize those in power, our contemporary oligarchy. For example, he calls out the abuse of flags and rhetoric–and the reduction of everything and everyone to commodity:
There is only inventory left to take and some history to invent
For a nation forged with guns and lies, flags and rhetoric
There ain’t nothing like the past to remind you of who you are
There ain’t nothing like the present to remind you of who you aren’t
After everyone’s been bought and everyone’s been sold
The steering wheel is a prayer wheel on the open road
Mallonee remains in an interrogative posture toward America, and the songs invite us to take up that posture.
It is really just basic questions: In our often unquestioned rush to embrace whatever version of modernity is making its way on to the shelf of our consumer lives, are we perhaps losing something? What is it we’re losing? Add in all the mind-numbing technological ‘trimmings’. We seem dulled, hardly motivated. Are we becoming incapable of being passionate about the big ideas? What Christ called the weightier matters of the law? Things like Compassion, Justice and Mercy? Has a form of cynicism crept in, leaving us vacant in spirit and (I think) prone to manipulation? That manipulation takes many forms. I think about these things.
The songs on Lands and Peoples ruminate on these questions, think about these things. The title track, a new entrant into the Great American Song Book, closes with the notes of closing songs, played for an ending national holiday, maybe played for an ending nation:
Now, closing songs from sad bandstands can bring you some relief
‘Cross a parking lot that littered with our grandeur and our griefs
Tonight moonlight plays her hand beneath a field of pure star-shine
All the lands and peoples, stretching far and wide
But it is important to understand that the plaintive notes are not all that there is: as they linger in the night, the sky overlooks the litter, and stars glitter in continuing promise: the parking lot need not be our greatest, our final accomplishment.
An amazing song, built on an outside-of-time structure of guitar, banjo and harmonica. It manages to bring past America into fully present Americana. And it does that while asking us to consider our future. The presence of the past and of the present and of the future collect in one song. Its melody is both completely new and rooted firmly in the vernacular of American popular music. The vocals perfectly express both fatigue and determination, both acknowledgment of the failures of the past and hope for something better.
But in general, the album faces America story by story and character by character, not just in the larger, collective terms of the title song. Mallonee’s imagination has been gripped by the stories of various places in the American past, particularly the dust-swept Great Plains of the 1930’s. The plight faced by those people has become iconic for Mallonee–worth considering itself, and serving as a metaphor for the current state of the country, and for our own individual fates. Mallonee ends the album with “It All Turns to Dust”.
No, there’s not much you can count on
But, here’s one thing you can trust
Everything and everyone?
It all turns to dust
Mallonee reminds us not only of the Dust Bowl, not only of the continuing exploitation of the downtrodden, but also of our own of-the-earth earthiness: dust to dust. Robert Frost once suggested that we might think of ourselves as having been made by God from prepared mud (a nod to evolution), but even so we will eventually become unprepared mud. Cheaters and the cheated will end up mixed together under the feet of a new generation.
I think Lands and Peoples is a dark and sober album…[It] looks…outward, but through the eyes of characters who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream through no fault of their own. [The album] might be seen as a…grieving process about hallowed and precious things that get lost, things that go “unborn”. Beautiful, sacred things that go unrecognized.
Mallonee sings the stories of his characters in his unstudied, Everyman’s voice–one clearly close in various ways to Mallonee’s speaking voice. His unstudied (but far from careless) delivery aims at reducing barriers between himself and his listener. Mallonee wants to be heard, not just listened to. The question that guides his singing/writing is simple:
Have I won your trust with whatever truth I sang?
Mallonee is deeply concerned with both the modulation and the exposition of the thoughts his songs represent. His concern with exposition is his concern with truth. His concern with modulation is his concern to present the truth truly. Mallonee–perhaps in part because of the spiritual realities faced in his songs–is more aware than most that it is possible to so say what is true in an untrue way: for example, to say what is true but to do so simply to feed one’s pride. He works to present his characters in a way that respects them and makes them recognizable–so that listeners can know their pains are shared.
You take notes from those who are generous enough to come to shows and say things like: “Thanks for understanding me. The songs make me know I am not alone. They make me know that others have borne similar griefs, trials, etc.” So, things like that have a profound, humbling effect on a writer. It means you are starting to hit the mark.
Put it this way: Mallonee allows the experience of others to speak through him. To do this, he employs the common tongue, speaks in the words of proverb, slang, idiom. He knows he cannot let others speak through them unless he uses the words we share–speaks from and for the human heart.
If a song is written in the second-person, like many of the songs on [the album], I want you (the listener) to feel like you are having all of your questions answered by him/her by the time the song is over. Of course, the particular instrumentation lends to the conversation as well, you know? Is he lonely? forsaken? desperate? has he just cast caution to the wind? Then, let the instruments reinforce that stance.
America speaks on the album. Its current peoples, its past peoples–they gather here for a conversation about a country that seems itself all too often lonely, forsaken and desperate.
Mallonee has a sense for the tragic. For men and women who can be hurt. He knows that getting hurt often happens to those who are not fools.
The album opens with “At Least for a Little While”. The song asks for a little light, or, failing that, just some break in the darkness.
No more dark clouds; Oh, baby, that’s not your style
No more dark clouds, at least for a little while
At least for a little while
So if you’re walking wounded, bedeviled and all
Honey, if you’re walking wounded, darling, I won’t let you fall
One more thing about that drifting, every place becomes your home
And, yes, you may be lonely but you never are alone
The album takes us under the dark clouds. But Mallonee does not leave us alone. What is to be made of our plight, our current predicament? What verdict or sentence will be given? In a moment that mixes a remarkable image with a bit of self-reference (the words ‘audible sigh’ are the title of an earlier album), Mallonee imagines
All the words of the Lord in an audible sigh
His comment on the image was this:
I liked the idea of God pronouncing a verdict of sorts on us contained in that line. As if the Lord was shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck over our blindness.
Memorable. This is a challenging and deeply rewarding album, heart-wrenching and mindful. And beautiful. Few albums have ever undertaken the searching tour of America that Lands and Peoples does. Few songwriters have ever been more concerned sympathetically to understand the making and the unmaking of Americans.