Listening to Mal Blum’s music, you might grow a bit jealous of the people who get to actually hang with the singer/songwriter in real life. Thanks to their wry one-liners and their ability to create joyful sounds out of relentless self-scrutiny, it’s easy to picture Blum sliding up to brunch or a beach day dispensing a fluid mix of slightly weird yet perceptive jokes and deep insights about the endless struggle to understand oneself and others. These registers—humor and world-weary musing—converge on Blum’s latest record Pity Boy, bringing levity to songs about mental health, the limited resources we have to care for one another, and the grace to be found in taking responsibility for hurting others. Even when Blum’s themes shade darker, the music allows slants of brightness to permeate the gloom and offers frequent opportunities to jump up, dance around, and forget whatever problem might have initially inspired a song.
Opening track “Things Still Left to Say” summarizes what distinguishes Blum’s music from others working at the nexus of punk, pop, and confessional songwriting: specifically, Blum’s ability to diffuse difficult thoughts with humor (“Should I explain myself? / I’d rather read the dictionary!”) and their fascination with the metaphysical gap between one’s presence among others and one’s internal experience of that togetherness. “Do you miss me when I’m not around?” Blum sings, “Because you don’t see me when I’m here”.
In their refrains, Blum’s songs often rely on repetition but not in a way that grows annoying or rote. Rather, the strategy lets Blum turn a thought over and over, drawing different meanings out of it. The refrain on “Things Still Left to Say” goes, “I’ve got things still left to say / I’ve got phrases, I’ve got phrases”—and the contrast between the colloquial construction “I’ve got” and the pretentious word “phrases” strikes a somewhat hilarious, self-deprecating tone. Through this choice, the refrain both mocks the self-indulgent impulse to express oneself and insists on its importance. Blum never specifies what “things” they have to say, but that evasion is exactly the point. Sometimes we feel moved to speak but don’t quite know what to say.
Pity Boy is the first album that Blum recorded with their longtime touring band, The Blums, which includes Audrey Zee Whitesides on guitar, Barrett Lindgren on bass, and Ricardo Lagomasino on drums. The Blums contributed substantially to the arrangements here and created teflon-tight musical structures to shape Blum’s occasionally wordy writing. On “Things Still Left to Say,” for example, Lagomasino and Lindgren create a foot-stomping backbeat while Whitesides sprays arcing guitar riffs like rainbow confetti all over the melody. The song feels engineered to inspire head-bobbing; it’s almost impossible to take the ride without moving some part of your body along.
Pity Boy’s other tracks cleave into two fairly distinct sonic categories: cathartic pop-punk bliss and downtempo DIY acoustics. “Odds,” “I Don’t Want To” and “Gotta Go” exemplify the former through fast tempos, peppy power chords, and Blum’s slightly attitudinal delivery, recalling the adolescent paradox of raising a middle finger to the world while secretly stewing in insecurity. These songs hit a sweet spot between Green Day’s guilty-pleasure ear candy and the introspective, political observations made by Blum’s punk-leaning labelmates at Don Giovanni Records.
On its face, “I Don’t Want To” appears to be an anti-adulting anthem: a declaration of resistance to the tasks we must do to keep our lives on track under capitalism even if, like Blum, we don’t want to. Closer inspection reveals a confrontation with a friend who’s leveled up in the game of life, engaging in bourgeois activities (“You do yoga / And you don’t feel complicated about it”) and hitting their financial marks (“Pay your bills on time / Not month-to-month like some other guys”) with aggravating precision. As elsewhere, Blum deploys the musical syntax of fuck-you punk to sublimate their self doubt, as lines like this creep in: “I’ll never be like that / I can’t tell you why.” If you feel like blasting the song while doing something other than opening your mail, then Blum is giving you permission to go for it.
The second category of songs harkens back to Blum’s earlier, quieter compositions, turning down the feedback and softening the rhythm section to showcase poetic observations. “Splinter,” “Black Coffee” and “Salt Flats” all deserve a close listen, but “See Me” stands out among this group. “I don’t belong, though it helps to play along,” Blum sings, capturing a feeling that resonates between two valences of experience: the common suspicion of not fitting in and Blum’s own identity as a non-binary transgender individual in a cis-normative society. Blum may well have written the song before the Trump administration launched its assault on the civil rights of transgender people, but in its current context, Blum’s repeated plea of “Why can’t you see me when I’m right here?” insists on visibility not just in an interpersonal sense, but also at a crucial juncture in American political life.
Thanks to various pop psychologists and self-help gurus, the word “vulnerability” has become commonplace in 2019, but given its prevalence, it’s lost a bit of specificity. On Pity Boy, Blum lays their thoughts bare and, sure, makes themselves vulnerable, but they also explore a more refined dimension of the concept. Opening up to others can be more than just a performance; rather, the things we reveal often demand that we take responsibility for our related actions. This isn’t easy, especially for a musician who’s exploring those thoughts in public.
On album closer “Maybe I’ll Wait,” Blum acknowledges how their self-protective tendencies—whether stemming from brain chemistry or being hurt by others—sometimes lead to letting people down. “I’ve been trying to be better / Since I’ve known what better was,” Blum admits. Pity Boy offers both the comfort and joy of spending 38 minutes in Blum’s forthright yet mercifully light-hearted presence as they navigate how to speak politically in 2019 and try to be a better friend.