My friend, Franklin Bruno. A terrific song and amusing video.
My friend, Franklin Bruno. A terrific song and amusing video.
Giving the Devil His Due: The Music of Bill Mallonee
These are the liner notes I wrote for Bill Mallonee’s album Rags of Absence.
“The whole creation”, St. Paul says, “groaneth and travaileth until now.” “…what I would,” he says, “that I do not; but what I hate that do I.” This is not denial, this is not evasion. In speaking as he does of the extent of pain and the power of evil St. Paul is not alone among religious teachers. In this at least religion reveals the truth. And it does so not by telling us what we did not know but by showing us what we did. –John Wisdom
“…and when it comes to the human heart? Well, the devil rides for free.” –Bill Mallonee
A good friend of mine–an admirer of Bill Mallonee’s music–commented to me that he finds the music hard to listen to. Now, he, of course, was not complaining about the complicated brilliance of the lyrics or the subtle grace of the melodies. He was not complaining about the recordings or the mixes, about anything in the production. In fact, he was not complaining. He was instead perplexed, caught in a paradox: admiring music that he does not and cannot listen to casually, music that he finds difficult, even demanding. –Now, it could be that what he meant was the Mallonee writes sad songs–and that is true. But Mallonee writes fewer sad songs than you may think he does. (Check the catalog.) And, anyway, my friend was not struggling with sadness in the songs. So, what was he struggling with? I found the question worth thinking about and I still do. I also have a suggestion about how to answer it: First, Mallonee writes unflinchingly of evil. He acknowledges the reality of evil and acknowledges that it is not something we can make go away or overcome on our own. Second, Mallonee insists on our finitude, our limits, our inabilities. And, third, Mallonee understands that individual salvation involves the salvation of others. Salvation is a ‘we’ business, a plural business, not an ‘I’ business, singular. These acknowledgments make the music hard–but they do not detract from its artistic accomplishment.
The great American philosopher, Josiah Royce, declared: “I regard evil as a distinctly real fact, a fact just as real as the most helpless and hopeless sufferer finds it to be when he is in pain.” Royce wrote directly and forcibly, so as not to be misunderstood. Evil is real. It touches our lives, it is sometimes of our doing. We sometimes suffer and sometimes perpetrate evil.
That is hard to hear, hard to acknowledge. Instead, we tell ourselves bedtime stories, even while the day is abroad: “Evil is an illusion. Evil is temporary.” But evil is not an illusion. Evil is not temporary–at least not in the way that we mean it, as something we, on our own, will eventually eliminate.
Evil is not an illusion: any story about it that makes the pain of helpless and hopeless sufferers some kind of mistake on their part–that story gets things wrong. Any story on which evil is not visible–and hence not a real fact–even from God’s point of view, gets things wrong. God will wipe away all tears, yes, surely; but the tears are real, they are there to be wiped away. “I dunno how every tear will be wiped away/God’s got a lot on his plate.” Any denial of this looks like a lapse into a senselessly invulnerable optimism, a foolish confidence. The tears are real. How they are to be wiped away is a mystery, but we cannot wipe them out by declaring them illusory.
But confused religious idealists are not alone in viewing evil as an illusion; confused secular idealists do it too. Their explanation goes various ways–but here is one favorite: no one is evil; those who seem to be are actually sick, ill, psychologically infirm. Now, while psychological infirmity is certainly real, evil does not reduce to psychological infirmity. Sometimes we do evil and we have no available excuse. We choose to hurt others for no reason but to hurt them. We embrace darkness knowingly.
Like all acknowledgments, the acknowledgment of evil needs to be performed rightly. We do not acknowledge it rightly if we think: “Yes, evil is real. It is neither an illusion nor a form of illness. And those folks over there–across some border, or with darker skin, or with names featuring multiple consonants–those folks over there are evil.” No. We acknowledge it rightly only when we realize that the ‘we’ in “We embrace darkness knowingly” is genuinely a first-person plural: I am included among the embracers of darkness. I embrace it. So do you. And it is not just that I can embrace it, that I am tempted: it is that I do and have. Each human heart is desperate with evil. That does not make each of us evil, full stop: but it does make evil something inalienable, distressingly near and familiar. Few of us are all Saturday night. None of us are all Sunday morning. We are mostly damp, chill Wednesdays. –In the struggle against our own evil, every day is hump day.
Mallonee also writes from a genuine recognition of human finitude. No one of us is an end-all or a be-all. No one of us stretches from horizon to horizon. Limits define us. “There are some deadlines no man can make.” We are smaller than we aim to be, believe ourselves to be. Our reach exceeds our grasp, our eyes are bigger than our stomach, we try on big sister’s clothes. We end empty-handed, bellyaching, ludicrous. We need to accept that we can only reach so far, only consume so much, only wear this size. But restraint rankles. Spiritual downsizing seems less discipline and more loss. We would grow as vast as empires, and faster than internet start-ups.
Now, high-mindedness is good; it should be encouraged. But high-mindedness must mix with humility, else it denatures into arrogation. The high-minded person understands the difficulty of what is undertaken, understands that it may very well not be completed, but does not refuse to undertake it on that account. For the high-minded, the view of the goal is always mediated by the means, and this means that the high-minded do not cut corners, cheat. The sort of goals the high-minded pursue are unreachable by shortcuts: it is not the way that is narrow, it is the narrowness that is the way. But that means that the high-minded understand the cost of the undertaking, accept its demands, and undertake it counting it worthy of pursuing even if the pursuit never ends or they fail honorably in it. (The life so short, the craft so long to learn.) So the high-minded are aware–it is part of their high-mindedness–of their own finitude, of their limits. Think of Thomas Aquinas praying for God to “complete his finished task” for him. He knew that he would end before the task did. He left the completion of the task in God’s hands. That is high-mindedness. Think of Socrates, before the Jury and his accusers, speaking of himself as on a mission from God, a mission that had made him poor and profoundly unpopular. But his mission was his mission: he would not be turned aside. –Think of Bill Mallonee in the high desert, selling his guitars to keep making music.
Genuinely recognizing our finitude is not throwing in the towel, or failing to answer the scratch; it is no shelter for cravenness. Restraint is not loss, but a preparation for more important battles, a way of gathering in and husbanding your best forces for the important fights. It is a way of feeding what is best in you and starving what is worst. It is required for purity of heart, required if we are to will one thing. We all want happiness, ample and complete, but restraint furthers that aim, it does not hinder it. Our perfection as human beings is a finite perfection. We are not God, omnipotent and omniscient with Him: and wanting to be, we fall down, trip up, whether in a garden or in a desert or in an asphalt jungle. Socrates claimed a kind of wisdom, a human wisdom, and denied having any divine wisdom. He acknowledged his limits and doing so allowed him to understand that human wisdom ripens only in the acknowledgment of ignorance. There are things Socrates wanted to know that he knew he would not know, at least not on the hither side of the blue. He was ok with that, he could live–and die–with it.
Mallonee also realizes that salvation is not the individual business it is sometimes taken to be. He knows that we need each other, and at the widest and deepest possible levels. I cannot care about my own salvation unless I care about yours. I cannot be saved if I am not genuinely trying to save others. This is not as such a call for witnessing or for evangelism. My effort to save you may take the form only (only!?) of warming you, feeding you, clothing you. And here’s the uncomfortable thing: I cannot care about your eternal life if I do not care about your temporal life. Melville wrote in Moby Dick that ours is a “mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians”. That is absolutely true. Even in the eternal meridians. God is the Lord of Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. He is a hospitable God, never alone, always in company: Three in One, and surrounded by tens of thousands of angels, by archangels, and by the cloud of witnesses, the saints. The songs sung there are sung by choirs–there are no soloists in heaven. The New Song is our song.
Mallonee can be hard to listen to. But that is not because the songs are anything other than first-rate. All Mallonee’s many virtues are present on Rags of Absence, and in a resplendent array. Mallonee is hard to listen to because he tells us things we know but do not want to know, things of which we are motivatedly ignorant, forgetful. He shows us what we know but will not know. He does it by finding the patterns in the human rigmarole, by his gift for shifting his vision just enough to see the universal in the particular, the eternal in the temporal. Every human life is a scene of universal and eternal importance; every human life gives testimony, perhaps mutely, to what is everywhere and always true. But that is the testimony we do not want to hear. So Mallonee’s music challenges us: to love the songs requires being willing to bear the songs’ burden of home truths.
Not that long ago, thinkers who thought hard about our aesthetic lives, about art, distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. One distinction between the two is that the experience of the beautiful is pleasurable, and solely pleasurable, whereas the experience of the sublime is not pleasurable or not solely pleasurable. To understand this, consider the experience of a violent thunderstorm–but the experience of it not as a person exposed to the wind and the rain, but as a person contemplating it from a secure and comfortable seat on a porch. There is pleasure in such an experience, but it contains an admixture of pain–a recognition of our own smallness, of our vulnerability, of the uncontrollable and dwarfing and awesome power of the storm. Mallonee’s music I reckon sublime. The sublime songs tell us hard truths. The soaring guitars strike the depth of our plight. The melodies ring out all the discord of our lives. There is pleasure aplenty in the music–but there is pain too.
The distinction between the beautiful and sublime has fallen into disuse, largely because we have little appetite for the sublime. We do not want to face the bracing, the stern; we abhor discomfiture. We do not want to be reminded that we are small, vulnerable. We want to be entertained, stroked, fondled–we want our itching ears scratched. We want what we are interested in, not what is in our interest. We want what we want–to hell with what we need.
We need music like Mallonee’s, art like his: strong, unafraid and soothfast, replete with sublimity. We need to hear what Mallonee tells us. We need to hear it, and to hear it over and over again and again. Because we do not want to hear it, and because we will forget it. And none of that is about to change.
Giving the devil his due–acknowledging evil, finitude, and dependence–is not turning from Heaven. It is recognizing Heaven must begin here, in the wheezing dust of our lives, as Hell must too. Paradise and Inferno are hard against wherever we are. It is perhaps easy enough to look around us and believe that the Inferno is a stone’s throw away (as it was for the mob following the woman taken in adultery), but it is hard to see Heaven as near. But it is near, as near as my own hand, or the leaves in the field. Walt Whitman writes in the fifth chant of “Song of Myself”:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that
pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own…
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
There is an abyss of wonder, an abyss of grace, in the near, the low and the familiar. But that abyss becomes visible to us only if we know that the kelson of the creation is love: love is the centerline structure of creation, holding it together–leaves, ants, fences, stones, poke-weed and us. Love ensures that the devil never gets more than his due, and eventually gets just what he is due. The devil is limited. The kelson of creation is limitless.
It may sometimes seem that we live squalid in rags of absence, that God has bolted from his creation–and then bolted it shut. That God is a God in jest, cruel jest. But: the Incarnation: God is with us: He is the kelson of creation. He is not a cosmic spectator of our tears but commiserates with us hic et nunc. He tasks us to weep with those who weep. He will not task us with any task that is not also His. How is this possible? I do not know. But I know that this album by Mallonee increases my faith. If a man can enter so into the suffering of others, affirm it, and bless them, how could Got not do so too?
I was lucky to see Matt Pond a week or so ago on what he said will be the band’s last trip to Atlanta. Great show. A really crafty pop songwriter.
Buckner has perfected a shaken rosebush sound–all at once moving, woody, thorny, and petaled in difficult beauty. His album, Surrounded, attests to his remarkable virtues as a singer-songwriter. But his virtues are not easy to appreciate; he offers no ease of access to them. The melodies of the songs on the album are lovely, but they exist more as traceries than as simple single lines, they are densely structured and closely knit–there are few big, dramatic chord changes, few reaches for the immediate, call it the hummable. You might deem the melodies ruminative–but that should not suggest the bucolic or the pastoral: they are fiercely ruminative, the rumination determined not to spare the ruminator or the ruminated topic or the listener–intense, brooding ruminations.
Perhaps the best way to understand the difficulty of Buckner is to consider the writing process that produced the songs on the album. The nine songs are built from the text of five prose vignettes. (The album liner supplies these.) The vignettes are numbered, and their text looks a little like the text of old New Testaments–some of the words are in black, the words that become lyrics of the songs, and other are in read, the words that are part of the vignettes but not themselves lyrics of the songs. There are also words in green bold face, the words that serve as the titles of the songs. So each song is a complicated distillation of a vignette or of some portion of a vignette. For illustration, the opening section of the first vignette is:
[Those static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but] you just won’t lie down. Even closing your eyes, you can’t let it go, surrounded inside.
The words in brackets are the words printed in red. The other words are the opening lyrics of the first song, “Surrounded”, whose title is the bold-faced word. The vignette continues:
Leave it alone. You don’t get it back [by] undoing the scenes [that] you can’t explain, whatever [it is that] you dream that you’ve buried away.
It seems like you’re there as someone removed [of the proof, then returned to the pride] and [abandoned with others] left in their place with nothing to do, [still] bound to the switch. [But], railing again at the thought of the fight for well-earned dissent (undeserved at the time, as you’ve been shown), the motion has gone a shade of the night, only leading you on.
Before I say much more about the process of building songs this way, it is worth pausing to consider the vignette itself, independent of the song that Buckner scries within it. Anyone who knows Bucker’s recording history and who has reflected on the character of his lyrics, knows that they are elliptical exercises, worse even than the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi. Buckner does not speak but conceals, gives signs, hints, suggestions. But he won’t come clean. Early songs were built around an implied but never actually used word (“Blue and Wonder”):
And what’s that word:
I forget sometimes
It’s the one that means
The love has left your eyes?
Bucker never actually supplies that word. He leaves the reader wondering (perhaps a deliberate pun in the title of the song), since there is not a single English word with that exact meaning, or none I can think of. (Maybe I have forgotten it too?) Part of the artistry here is that by claiming that there is such a word but that he has forgotten it, Buckner supplies that sense of familiarity with everyday tragedies that we all have, even if we would like to forget it. But Buckner always cares more to bring us around to a cold plunge into a familiar but uncomfortable reality than about telling us about such realities. That continues here: this vignette never really tells us, in so many words, about what surrounds the narrator–it instead surrounds us itself, won’t let us rest. What does it mean? Something has been done, something undone, something buried, something dissented from. But what? Several of the sentences have a murky grammatical structure, stringing the reader from word to word without the benefit of creating any clear lexical expectation. You find yourself at the period, stopping. but only then, if at all, having any sense of where you have been. This is clearly deliberate–not a failure, but a success of art. It bears comparisons with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and with, say, Claire Lispector.
The hollow at the heart of the vignette deepens in the song Buckner finds in the vignette. (The relationship between the generating vignettes and the generated songs varies in each case. “Surrounded” is perhaps the song that most fully preserves its generating vignette.) Consider the lyrics.
You just won’t lie down
Even closing your eyes
You can’t let it go
Leave it alone
You don’t get it back
Undoing the scenes
You can’t get explain
Whatever you dream
That you buried away
It seems like you’re there
As someone removed
And left in their place
With nothing to do
Bound to the switch
At the thought of the fight
For well-earned dissent
Undeserved at the time
As you’ve been shown
The motion has gone
A shade of the night
Only leading you on
There is no straightforward verse/chorus structure here exactly. There are no rhymes. But it is far from formless. The words ingather around whatever it is that is missing from the lyrics, some skeleton key word or phrase that would allow escape. The words create claustrophobia, crowd densely around. No escape offered, the lyrics end in stasis, the only hope (?) a shade of the night–a grayer black, a ghost? both?–that offers to lead you–only you?–on. But is that an offer of anything more than empty change?Substituting one siege for another? Railing, fighting, dissenting get us nothing deserved.
Buckner finger-picks insistently, weaving the lyrics through the pattern. His vocal expression gives little away–the words matter, the delivery is not inflectionless. But the singing reveals mainly the intensity of the self-questioning, of the restlessness of the desire for explanation, the restlessness full stop.
Perhaps nothing more thematizes this song, this album, and Buckner’s career, than his grappling with a wide-eyed sleeplessness, physical and psychological. In Emerson’s essay, “Experience”, Emerson bemoans not just the death of his son, Waldo, but also, and even more intently, he bemoans the fact that he cannot fully realize Waldo’s death, concretize it into a current circumstance of his life. He writes
In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, –no more. I cannot get it nearer to me…[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.
Buckner lives out a kind of nepsis; he paces the walls while the rest of us sleep. He spends his nights inquiring up and down, tiring his animal eyes and the eyes of his mind. But he cannot sleep. He cannot bring the things that move him–those that calm him, those that grieve him, those he has loved and those he has lost, –he cannot bring them nearer to him. They have done what they have done and he and they have moved on, no lesson surely learnt. Everything touches him but nothing touches him: everything slides away, led on by a shade of the night. Life itself proves caducous. Dream delivers him to dream, and there is no end to illusion. –How can we hold onto lives that flux like water, running out of our clutches, leaving behind only trails of tears? How can we step into real nature–not just as observers, pacers of the wall, but as bodily entrants into reality itself? Our skin seems sometimes to get in between us and the world, making our grasp of things gloved, mediated, distant. Sleep comes to seem like an acceptance, a yielding to dreams, a conniving at agreeable illusions. Buckner will not yield. He remains awake in the inextricable darkness.
The sheer intensity of Buckner’s refusal of sleep can overwhelm the listener. Buckner is determined to exhaust exhaustion. He is bound to the switch. How can art arrest life, incarcerate it? That is a question that will keep you up nights. Perhaps there is a confusion in it, as perhaps there is a confusion in Emerson’s grievance about grief–but, even if there is, it is a confusion we all find ourselves in eventually. What we want nearer we can get only so near, and no more. Nothing we care about seems capable of being both ours and other. Everything eventually sees or saws, settling in one place or another, wholly ours and so not of interest, or wholly other and so out of reach.
Buckner always brings Emerson to mind for me. That is because each man devotes himself to what I call, if you will excuse the term, a phenomenology of moods. Each is more interested in finding a way to capture a mood than he is in capturing the object or scene or whatever it might be that creates the mood. (One of the songs on Surrounded is, fittingly, “Mood”.) Each takes mood itself to be his ‘object’. This, I take it, helps to explain what I have called the hollowness of the lyrics, the fact that something seems always to be left out, left up to us to supply, if it is supplied at all. –The fascination with mood has developed over Buckner’s career. You find it on early albums, but usually as a bit or a piece of a song, not as the song itself. As he has continued to record, the fascination has deepened. Now, the songs are often fogs of mood, obscuring all non-moody objects, and leaving us with only the fog itself as a subject of attention. No doubt to some this seems like willful obscurantism–but that is true only of those who cannot bring themselves to focus on the fog, to see that it is worthy of attention, despite its shifty, ephemeral nature, despite the fact that it seems always to recede just as we lean in to study it.
Buckner’s problem (and, so, not his willful obscurity) is how to bring into focus the very stuff that we take to soften or blur our focus, to hinder our gaze. The things it is hard to see from up close, because they are often best visible in the distance. (Emerson has his own version of this problem.) I suspect that Buckner’s method of composition, the creating of the vignette, then the subtracting from it until the lyric emerges, is itself driven by his problem. The vignette captures the mood, but does so in a way that threatens to solidify it, to make it too object-like. Subtracting to find the lyric de-objectifies the mood, as does adding the music, the melody. Buckner captures the mood by capturing us in it, by getting us to find ourselves inside it, instead of standing over and above it, outside it. We come to know the fog by learning how to see it, and to see in it, as best we can. Buckner’s pursuit of mood creates the strange mix of determinacy and indeterminacy in his lyrics, the combining of sketchy personal presences with carefully delineated emotional detail. The songs are scenescapes of free-floating emotional disturbances.
“Surrounded” is one of the best of the songs on the album; but there are no weak songs. There are deeply lovely songs, like the unanswered mystery of “Beautiful Question”. There’s the trembling demon seance of “Mood”. The album ends with a transcendental take on a symbol of the temporary, “Lean-To”.
Buckner is a songwriter of real brilliance. His songs are exercises of that brilliance, a force creating its appropriate expression. These are not songs that wear what makes them so wonderful on their sleeves. They require time, frequentation, serious thinking. Thoreau once remarked that books must be read as deliberately as they are written. These songs must be listened to as deliberately as they were composed. Buckner wears himself out. He wears his listener out. And that, odd as it may be to put it this way, is part of the point: what Buckner is doing is demanding.