Jesse Malin’s solo debut, 2003’s The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, was produced by his friend and ambitious rock and roll idol Ryan Adams. It certainly did Malin worlds of good to have Adams’ expertise at the boards, as well as the media attention Adams commands. When Malin went into the studio to record The Heat, Adams was unavailable to produce, so Malin, who’s no musical slouch himself, took charge himself. The results are more rock and less roots than Self-Destruction, though the trademark heartache and big-city grime are as omnipresent as ever.
If Malin stepped out from Ryan Adams’ shadow with The Heat, he’s also embraced a new role model and, it would seem, career ambition. With the new release, Malin’s gone from being a New York punk/glam kid with the band D Generation to being New York’s answer to Bruce Springsteen.
I know, Bruce belongs to all of us. Especially since The Rising was released. But the Boss is still Jersey at heart, and by rights the Big Apple needs its own local hero. That’s where Jesse Malin comes in: Entertainment Weekly once called him “the Springsteen of Avenue D”. Malin’s got major appreciation for the man, having performed on Light of Day: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, played live with Springsteen and his band (three of Malin’s own songs, no less!), and been written up in Backstreets Magazine, that glossy dedicated to all things Bruce.
Like Springsteen, Malin specializes in gritty, street-level tunes about people struggling through life’s mean twists. But where Springsteen sings about the down ‘n’ outs of Middle America, Malin is singing about (and to) a distinctly Gen X/Y kind of casualty. On “Swingin’ Man” Malin sings about a failed relationship with Mary, who “never had a baby / But she got more tattoos / And I got more material for the blues”. “Mona Lisa”, the first track and first single, is little more than a litany of miseries. After a bright guitar and doo-wop intro, Malin launches into a breathless recitation of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, existential angst, and transgressions large and small.
British music magazine Uncut once described Ryan Adams as having one of rock and roll’s most “sweetly wracked” voices. Similarly, Malin’s voice is his most distinctive feature: Malin’s voice often sounds throttled, emotion squeezed through a clenched throat. But that voice can summon an amazing range of emotion. At times he’s full of impotent rage, and elsewhere he channels the swagger of John Travolta’s Danny Zuko from Grease. But through it all Malin’s voice sounds earthy, pained, and genuine.
It’s this genuineness that has earned Malin a devoted legion of fans. He’s lived in New York City his whole life and has been playing its dive bars and clubs since he was 12 years old. Malin’s presumably witnessed first hand the unique kinds of pain NYC can heap on people, and he’s got the keen eye and open heart needed to make art from trauma. On the sweetest ballad of The Heat, “Silver Manhattan”, Malin tells a tale typical of the album. He sings about a transplant from the Midwest, a dropout and misfit who bottoms out at the hands of “another drunk musician”, but manages to hold on to her dreams. When Malin puts it to music the story becomes all-too-believable and poignant.
Far from being a one-note repetition of life in the Big City, Malin’s production has turned The Heat into a multifaceted rock and roll onslaught. From the Johnny B. Goode wailing guitars of “Hotel Columbia” to the prodding backbeat of “New World Order” and “Swingin’ Man”, Malin shows a light but proficient touch for bending a wide variety of sounds to his will. After twenty-plus years in the business, Malin’s experience has found a brilliant release in The Heat, and one can only hope that he’ll continue to aspire to the heights that Springsteen has staked out.