Maybe it’s just because as I write I’m sitting with my feet in a bucket of ice-water next to a fan that’s turned on full blast, or because neither of these rather archaic measures are doing much to defray the intensely humid, sticky heat, but I think one of the nicest things about this album is its evocation of the lassitude of high summer.
Mallman and first-time collaborators Vermont (comprising Chris Roseneau of Pele and Davey Von Bohlen and Dan Didier of Promise Ring) know plenty about Midwestern heat. The album was recorded in Mallman’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a windowless practice space clocking in at over 110 degrees. Mallman, who gained national notoriety with his 26.2-hour nonstop live performance of his song “Marathon” last fall (oh yes, there was a webcast), calls this his most moody and quiet album to date. Considering his past credits include the Minneapolis trash-punk outfit The Odd and numerous publicity stunts including faking his own Fariña-style death (a car crash right before the release party of his last album, The Tourist), this latest effort from the Twin Cities’ most notorious prankster is a departure indeed—either that or just what fans have come to expect from someone who constantly strives to surprise.
When it’s too hot to move, and everything sticks to itself anyway, even the best-adjusted among us may turn to desperation and lethargy. For Mallman, who is pictured on the album inset with flak vest and .22 pointed over the cameraman’s shoulder, the best remedy is an immediate, if downtrodden, record. Though I have not spent much time in Minneapolis, I did make many a weekend trip to Milwaukee during college. That town is all wood-paneled and odd; every coffee shop had someone in the corner talking to himself, and the hotel bar featured a Frank Sinatra impersonator who did gymnastics between sets. It’s only natural, therefore, that a man who came up from this soil would have roots irrevocably twisted.
But Mallman’s outrageous stage persona is largely repressed on this release, lingering only in such lines as “It’s all vanity and some profanity to me” on “Four Letter World”. Instead, the album paints a picture of broken hope and lost love, delivered with the requisite (but philosophical rather than sarcastic) grain of salt. In the album’s first track, “Dear Glory”, Mallman addresses himself to that elusive entity that tempts us with satisfaction and transcendence. “Would it be different if I disappeared?” he wonders, then paints a picture of a life that might better suit him, with the car up on blocks in the yard, “a billygoat up on the roof / And some blood money stuck in my boot”. It’s a rather perverse vision of what might have been; but Mallman sings it with enough emotional intelligence and honesty that it does not seem affected.
The production is charmingly and satisfyingly immediate—not only, but perhaps particularly, to those felled by summer lethargy. I often heard fingers sliding down metal strings, and the spare melodies were just as often carried by breathy harmonica as by reverberating guitar. Mallman himself delivers two lovely keyboard solos on “Romeo Daze” and “**** World”, both laden with arpeggio and longing. “Romeo Daze” is one of the album’s lyrical gems, in which our Singer, “blinded by romance”, sings that “the sea in me silently sways”. Earlier, on “Too Hot”, Mallman’s lyrics captured “a deep drag on a bent cigarette” and with it all the frustration and distraction of temporal madness; by album’s end we are taken from Romeo’s underwater grotto to poolside (“Journal Entry from the Poolside Veranda of an East Coast Holiday Inn”), where smart-aleck Mallman whispers with unabashed feeling: “You know you are the only one”.
It’s still too hot to think. Thank goodness I can at least lie down in front of the fan, raise my heat-swollen arm and press PLAY on the stereo to hear Mallman sing the shape of my apathy.