Jesse Malin has stood for years as an ambassador for connectivity, but not the smartphone kind. Malin is a fan of old-fashioned interactions, the sort that require you to leave your house and run the risk of face-to-face encounters with other human beings. The New York rocker often broaches the subject during his live shows, usually in the form of sardonic monologues about the ways that technology has chipped away at the golden possibilities that come with chance meetings in public spaces. It’s a thread that runs throughout his music, though not always explicitly. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling that radiates from Malin’s songs, which mix punk-rock grit with an unabashed romanticism that heralds rock’n’roll as the ultimate bond. He’s still holding fast to this sentiment on New York Before the War, his first new album in five years.
Malin is a sharp-eyed observer with a restless streak, a role that has served him well since his 2003 solo debut The Fine Art of Self Destruction. Now, as then, the personal and the universal mingle as he alternates between blistering rockers and mournful slow songs, glinting in the wreckage of the heartache that inspired them. “I’m addicted to the glory of a broken heart,” he sings on “Addicted,” and it’s hard to imagine a more apt description of Malin’s aesthetic. Driven by a jaunty rhythm part that Malin has described as “The Ramones meet Paul Simon,” he reflects on his recurring muse, New York City, surveying the endless, inevitable changes constantly reshaping its character.
Uptempo numbers like the aforementioned are the strength of New York Before the War, though there are a few subtle moments that are equally rewarding. “The Dreamers” smolders over spare piano chords, and a brooding accompaniment yields to a scabrous guitar solo on “She’s So Dangerous.” Scaling back for a second or two allows Malin’s penchant for grandeur to pack even more of a punch.
Malin’s previous albums have boasted big-name guests and his latest is no exception. MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer joins him on the pulsing “Freeway,” R.E.M. co-founder Peter Buck offers a chiming guitar part on “I Would Do It for You,” and the Hold Steady’s frontman Craig Finn provides vocals on closing track “Bar Life.” Each plays his part well, yet none succeed in overshadowing Malin. He carries the roaring, fiery “Boots of Immigration” and is the king of silver linings over chugging guitars on “Oh Sheena.” The title is a nod at the Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” but the temperament is all Malin’s: “There’s a world outside if you want it,” he urges. It’s an invitation as well as an exhortation: everything is happening and can happen in the outside world, so why would you want to be anywhere else?