This story originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
Leave it to Bill Mallonee to find the perfect metaphor for desperation and hope. At the end of 2001 the critically acclaimed singer/songwriter of Athens, Georgia’s roots rockers Vigilantes of Love found himself without a band, without a recording contract, and without a clear direction. For twelve years Mallonee and a revolving cast of bandmates toured the clubs and festivals, released a dozen albums that were uniformly excellent and all but ignored by the mainstream media, and struggled to keep the dream alive. And he did it with songwriting that consisted of one startling metaphor after another. But after years of lack of promotion, failed record labels, and life away from friends and family, it was time to park the touring van. Last stop, everybody out. What do you do when dreams die, when all the hopes and aspirations lie torn and broken? You curl up into a ball. You assume the fetal position.
On Fetal Position, Bill Mallonee’s first solo album, the uncurling process is underway. In typical Mallonee fashion, the album’s 10 songs provide an emotional map of the heart, complete with smudged highway lines, detours, washed-out bridges and dead ends. A typical couplet states, “Hold me up; God, I don’t know why I’m lame/I’m drowning in a sadness I can hardly name.” Those who are looking for a roots rock version of an Up With People concert had better steer clear. But the thing about maps is that they can also point the way home. As Mallonee explains, “Fetal position is a position you sink to when all the externals show themselves as illusionary and internal things sputter and cough for a moment. It’s also the stance just before a new birth and emergence from the womb; moving from darkness into the light and holy regions of the future, where every day is a “first day” and charged with possibilities and grace.” It’s a great metaphor. On Fetal Position, Mallonee plays midwife to one of the finest collection of songs he’s ever delivered. What do you do when dreams die? You keep on doing what you do best, and you bring new dreams to life.
Mallonee recorded Fetal Position in a mere six days, enlisting the services of former VoL drummer Kevin Heuer and veteran VoL alumnus Billy Holmes on lead guitars, mandolins, and sundry keyboards. But make no mistake. This is a Bill Mallonee album and not a Vigilantes of Love album. Freed from writing “band” songs, Fetal Position offers instead unfettered Bill songs. In the process, he creates the most personal and intimate work of his career.
Mallonee stands in the tradition of great confessional romantics that runs from Dylan and Joni Mitchell through Ryan Adams and Steve Earle. There are a few missteps along the way. He’s occasionally guilty of settling for the sacrifice fly rather than swinging for the fences, as on the extended baseball metaphor of “You Give It All Your Heart,” where I want him to sing anything other than “It’s not whether you win or lose/It’s how you play the game.” But more often that not the words are startling, fresh, funny, and poignant, sometimes in the same song. In “Crescent Moon,” as fine a love song as Mallonee has ever written, he asks, “If you wished for the brightest star, would you consider crescent moon?” It’s the song of a man who has been married a long time, who knows his faults and insecurities and petty animosities, and who can offer nothing other than himself, flawed and broken. “For God’s sake, don’t these mama’s boys ever grow up?,” he sings wryly, and the joke is on him, and he knows it. He has learned to live with the faded romantic idealism that leaves behind something deeper and more resilient – something like faithfulness, a promise to be there and give sacrificially and make it work. MTV will never play it, but it’s the stuff of life. It is a love of diminished returns, of having to settle for the crescent moon of everyday life instead of the brightest stars of our fantasies. But it shines.
If the lyrics reveal the map of the heart, then the soundtrack to the heart borrows liberally from musical touchstones from the sixties through the eighties. There’s a pinch of ’67 Beatles psychedelia here, as on the stellar opener “She’s So Liquid,” a dash of Springsteen bravado there, as on the incendiary rave up “All or Nothing,” some jangly REM guitars everywhere. There are Dylanesque acoustic guitar and harmonica ballads. There are even some vintage Moog synthesizer and mellotron licks not heard since the days when Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman were performing in capes. It’s an eclecticism that serves Mallonee well, but the songs move far beyond their influences. In the end, the songs sound like no one except Bill Mallonee, precisely because no one else writes and sings like Bill Mallonee. He doesn’t invent a new sound, and he doesn’t create a musical revolution. But there are small pleasures everywhere—the way Kevin Heuer’s drums slam into the chorus on “All or Nothing,” the infectious Beatles ’65 jangle of “Summer In Our Veins,” the way Billy Holmes’ lead guitar channels the late George Harrison on “Wintergreen.” And there’s an appealing roughness around the edges. These are songs you can hum in the shower, with choruses that stay in your head for days, but the feedback is still powerful enough to strip away any pop sheen. This is power pop music with plenty of power and plenty of pop.
“Life On Other Planets” may be the best illustration of how the eclectic influences work together to form something far greater than the sum of the parts. To a buoyant pop melody that recalls Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, Mallonee sings about his family, about days and years that have passed too quickly and can never be restored, about kids who have grown up too fast and are gone, about all that is left undone and unsaid. It’s a bittersweet tale, one to which any parent will easily relate, but it’s a tale that holds out hope in the end. “I believe it turns to gold,” Mallonee sings, and that bright Beach Boys chorus meets a synth line straight out of a 1979 Cars album, and the end result is new wave surf music for thinking parents. It’s not a new genre; God knows we probably don’t need that genre. But it’s an instantly accessible map of the heart, full of wit and wisdom and indelible hooks, and it sticks in your head for days. In a more just universe it would be a hit, even without the accompanying video. The song paints its own images, and nothing else is required.
And so the uncurling process unfolds, song after song. Fetal Position is proof of what happens when an uncompromising artist follows his broken dreams and mines for something deeper. It won’t be a gold record. But it all gets turned to gold just the same.
What next for Bill Mallonee? Apparently a lot. For starters, the re-release of My Year In Review, a fan-club compilation originally recorded in 1995, and now receiving its general release on Paste Music for the first time, digitally remastered, with three new tracks. And two albums of new solo material, both due before the end of 2002. The prolific Mallonee pen ensures that there is a constant backlog of material waiting to be released. It doesn’t sound like the plan of a man too traumatized to emerge from a protective fetal ball. But that’s Bill Mallonee. The wounds heal, and through some magic alchemy the pain gets transferred to magnetic tape and the despair is turned to hope. It’s been that way for 12 years. For those of us along for the ride, Fetal Position is more proof that it all turns to gold.