The Only Lamp Burning Bright: Bill Mallonee’s “Winnowing”
Trying to write about Bill Mallonee is almost like attempting to dissect William Faulkner. You want to write about how brilliant he is and examine his work, but halfway through your attempt you come to the realization that you have no idea what you’re talking about.
The man has an insurmountable genius for his craft, and his work is simply stupefying. When you love a piece of art with fervor, one of the things you must attempt to do is explain your love to someone else, hoping they may share in this passion with you. For certain levels of art, words simply fail to express how wonderful something is. No one can properly explain the brilliance of something such as Sgt Pepper or Pet Sounds. You end up having to say something akin to “Just experience it!” This is what I wish I could say in regards to Bill Mallonee.
This won’t suffice for me or you though, so I’ll attempt to explain why you need to experience Bill this very instant.
When I was somewhere around eleven years old, I heard Bill for the first time. The album was Killing Floor, and I still think it’s one of the greatest albums of all time. I get a bit misty when I think about some of the songs on that. They strike a chord in the soul. I immediately became attached to Bill’s furious intellect and dark persona. I went on to discover more of his immense catalogue, Welcome to Struggleville, Audible Sigh, Summershine, and many more. His prolificity is staggering. Thus far he has released over 50 albums in a roughly 20-year period. I have listened to only about a fifth of those, and from what I’ve seen his consistency is unwavering.
The Bill Mallonee of the early Vigilantes of Love days is quite different than our modern Bill. He came across as having too much to say for his music to even contain. The opening lines of the jittery “Undertow” say:
I’ve got an idea in my head I’ve been kicking around for days.
I’ve tried to make it quit but it won’t go away.
This sums up how some of his lyrics sounded at the time. Here was a young man whose cup runneth over with genius, and he didn’t even have enough time to get it all down or spit it all out.
Since those days in the musical mecca of Athens, GA, Bill has relocated to the New Mexico desert. One might think he’s become a sort of Steinbeckian vagabond. The immediacy of a bustling music town has now dissipated; the calm, rinsing whispering sadness of the desert seems to be Bill’s new writing muse. He’s gone from being an enigmatic powerhouse to a pure mythical being.
Bill’s songs, to use his own words, “speak a language uniquely their own.” No one would ever accuse him of being too lucid. In recent years they’ve become increasingly stream-of-consciousness. They’ve never been what one might call “cheery,” either. Many bemoan the fact that Bill has never become more nationally recognized, as do I. What most fail to remember is that men who write songs like “Sick of It All” or “Black Cloud O’er Me” are not exactly what most of the record-buying public is seeking out, unfortunately. Not everyone is in the Ecclesiastes 7:2 mentality. Bill has said “That persistent melancholy that pervades our everyday reality (when we quiet down long enough to ‘listen’) has been such a strong emotion in my work. I can hardly think of anything else that defines the heart of it.” This is not to say that Bill does not have joy and redemption in his songs, the overriding feeling one gets from absorbing his oeuvre is what Flannery O’Connor called “the terrible speed of mercy.” According to O’Connor, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
What the listener may gain from Mallonee is an understanding that grace and joy can be messy. Some lines from the incredible album opener “Dover Beach (Out in the Cold)” exemplify this:
And our tears?
They speak a language uniquely their own
And every laugh?
It holds a promise that past the grave
there’s something more
Be it laying upon Jesus’ breast
or terrible swift swords
out in the cold
Was that your voice cascading
through all that is unseen?
I sorted through the implications,
still I don’t know what it means
Caught between a heart
that is at once both holy & obscene
out in the cold
hard to live, easy to preach.
As you can see, Bill’s writing is just as excellent as Neil Young or Bob Dylan. He’s always been this way, and he doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
Musically, the album is superb. Bill’s voice has taken on a warm weariness, like a good tube amp. The guitars drip with Bill’s self-described “honey tones” that sooth the weightiness of the lyrics. Bill has been getting more credit for being an excellent guitarist as of late, a distinction well-deserved. Bill and his wife/collaborator Muriah Rose play all of the instruments on the record. A talented duo, I believe.
The word “winnowing” is defined in a literary sense as “blow”, which could be used in a sentence such as “the autumn wind winnowed its way through the grass.” It also means to “remove (people or things) from a group until only the best ones are left.” Bill has mentioned that he considers Winnowing to be an autumn record. One can hear the chilled breeze of autumn in the title alone. He explains, saying, “Autumn, with her colors, smells, diminishing light heralding the approaching dormancy of the winter seems to be the ‘voice’ of much of this album… “
There are many musical artists on the market in this time. The internet has created an abyss of musical talent where greatness could potentially languish among an enormous pit of mediocrity. Winnowing allows the listener to remove all of the excesses in this modern life that make it hard to think. It’s music that gets down to the soul, purges you of the corrupting hollowness in the “new dark age,” and swiftly replaces it with painful grace.
Buy Winnowing, support enriching music, and be the “only lamp burning bright.”
The album can be purchased here: