The two portrait photos on Bill Mallonee’s new album, Winnowing, find the singer/songwriter standing outside his home in northern New Mexico. He’s wearing a green-plaid shirt and a big, cream-colored cowboy hat; dark ringlets of hair spill upon his collar and his beard is generously salted with white.
That white in his beard signals that he will be turning 60 next year and has entered the autumnal season of life, a time for a paring away, a winnowing of everything non-essential. Four years ago he left behind the suburban sprawl of Georgia for the empty high desert of northern New Mexico. He no longer tours with the Vigilantes of Love, the new-wave band that made him semi-famous in the ‘90s (though they did reunite for last year’s studio album Amber Waves). This fall’s house-concert tour will feature just himself on acoustic guitars and his wife Muriah Rose on keyboards.
On his website, Mallonee describes Winnowingas “an autumn record. The diminishing play of light, the signs of Earth going dormant, and the smell of wood fire suggest, to me anyway, a withdrawal, a strategic retreat, a tucking-in of dreams…and an inventory to be taken of the past. The intensity of sun-drenched, barren-blue skies diffuse, and give way to softer vistas. The light becomes a water-colored light.”
In the autumn of the year, as green corn stalks shrivel to a brittle brown, it’s no longer about boosting the crop; it’s about harvesting what you can and clearing away the rest. In the autumn of our years, as hair thins and whitens, it’s no longer about boosting a career; it’s about zeroing in on the work that matters most.
For Mallonee, once named by this magazine as one of the 100 best songwriters of our time, it’s no longer about crafting catchy singles for college or Adult Alternative radio but about addressing his deepest concerns. It’s about pulling back from the music industry and creating a career based on a low overhead in inexpensive New Mexico, recording at home and connecting with a devoted fan base through house concerts. It’s about abandoning the moral certainties of his early-career, Christian-flavored songs for the open-minded spiritual quest of his current compositions.
“Faith was flying at half mast,” he sings on the new song “Now You Know,” “so me, I cut the cord.” He explains that line was inspired by one of his favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, the liberal Presbyterian minister and novelist.
“Buechner once said that if you wake up on a razor blade,” Mallonee explains, “and 51 percent of you believes in a universe with a benevolent god and 49 percent doubts it, how can we spend 100 percent of our time pretending that the 51 percent is all that exists? That’s not true to my experience. That’s why country songs are so great, because they can be in the roadhouse one moment and in church the next. I want to sing about the 51 percent and the 49 percent. I want to write songs that don’t push a worldview down anybody’s throat but celebrate the basic questions of life.”
Today’s popular music tends to focus on either the 51 percent or the 49 percent but rarely combines the two. Why? Because it’s so damned hard to evoke a world where the spiritual and the animal co-exist. How does one combine belief and doubt in the same song? Or higher meaning and lower urges? Mallonee remains a fascinating songwriter, because he wrestles with these dichotomies as few others do. Listeners of any faith—Christian, Jew, Muslim or pantheist—can identify with this struggle; even an atheist such as this writer can find himself pulled between transcendence and selfishness in a universe devoid of the supernatural.
“So much of so-called religious music out there presupposes the artist is a minister,” Mallonee laments. “It’s not art, it’s propaganda—and it’s not even good propaganda. Around the time of [1995 album] Blister Soul, I told myself, ‘You’ve really got to distance yourself from this stuff or you’re going to become captive to it.’ I don’t think I disavowed my faith by doing that; I think I remained true to my art.
“There was something liberating about that. I used to feel I had to write a third verse about redemption to stay true to my faith. Getting rid of that third verse has been part of the winnowing. At this point all I can say about faith is, ‘This is what works for me.’ And, ‘I think we can all agree that this world is a hallowed place that we can honor.’”
For Mallonee, that honoring is done as much with his guitar as with his words. Most of these new songs are midtempo meditations on the world, whether seen from a barstool at the “Dew Drop Inn,” from the tidal wash of “Dover Beach,” from a chair at a “roadside diner communion table” or through the windshield of “an old, beat-up Ford.” And it’s his trademark jangly guitar, more harmonically sophisticated than in the Vigilantes of Love days but just as ear-catchingly melodic, that makes that world seem so inviting.
Recognizing the glories of this world, however, demands that we defend them against very real threats. When Mallonee sings about giving “the devil his due” on “Got Some Explainin’ To Do,” he suggests what forms Satan might take in our world: “Could be the new corporate terror seducing the government; could be the war machine; could be the one percent.” In another song, “Those Locust Years,” the devil becomes one of the horsemen of the apocalypse: “He grins as he passes from his horse made of bones, like a bird of prey, picking you clean.”
“Your spiritual feelings have to be grounded,” Mallonee insists. “They have to confront the powers that be, and those powers seem more sinister than ever before. We live in a small town of a thousand people on the Rio Grande, full of organic farmers who see Monsanto as the devil. Someone pollutes the Gulf and gets off with a hand slap. You see something like Ferguson and you wonder if we’ve come very far on race at all.
“Out on the road with Muriah, we hear all the time from people who lost their homes, lost their jobs, who were wounded in one way or another. I think the next record will be a folk album about those realities, though it’s hard to pull that off. Woody Guthrie was good at that; he never insulted your intelligence; he drew the big picture and let you make the connections.”
Of course, the feeling that society is going to hell in a handbasket is part of growing old, part of the autumnal experience. As your own body declines, it’s easier to identify with October-frosted, withered fields or with a democratic fabric that seems to be unraveling. “Death is a boxer stalking the ring,” Mallonee sings on “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes,” “grabs all the prize money and a few other things.”
“The candle’s probably getting shorter,” he concedes. “I won’t go into detail, but I had a dark medical scare last year. I’ve always been athletic, but things were hanging in the balance for about six months. I realized I didn’t want to leave yet—I had children and grandchildren I wanted to spend time with—but I had to consider, ‘What if?’
“I remember being struck at the time by Lou Reed’s Songs for Drella. I thought that was very bold to talk about death like that after a career in rock ‘n’ roll. So these songs came out of that experience. At my age, too many people have left the party too early, even if they’re dying from heart attacks and car accidents, not drug overdoses. I lost both of my parents eight or nine years ago. Life is pretty fragile, so let’s take advantage of what we’ve got and make it as glorious as we can.”