Jesse Malin: Glitter in the Gutter

[10 June 2007]

By Aarik Danielsen

Glitter in the Gutter, the title of Jesse Malin’s third record, not only is an apt description of the album’s sound and its thematic center, but it ably encapsulates the songwriter’s personality and the influences which have fused together to make his music a compound organism. Malin has always been both a punk (fronting the NYC band D Generation, and collaborating with Ryan Adams on unruly side project, the Finger) and a blue collar, folk-rock poet (evidenced on stellar tracks like “Brooklyn” from his excellent solo debut, 2002’s The Fine Art of Self Destruction). These two dominant aspects of Malin’s background have lent a “two sides of the same coin” aspect to his persona, making him all the more attractive as a spokesman for (or at least a window into) the world of those with little fortune, the misunderstood, and the ones who just can’t get ahead for trying.

Glitter in the Gutter starts slowly. Not literally, as the record begins with the combination of rallying rocker, “Don’t Let Them Take You Down (Beautiful Day!)” and “In the Modern World”, a track which references Malin’s punk roots, both in attitude and pace. Yet, these early offerings lack a bit of the soul to be showcased in successive tracks; despite their energy and intended impact, they seem a bit generic, as if Malin is playing safely on these songs.

Things become more interesting by the third track, “Tomorrow Tonight.” Featuring Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age on lead guitar, “Tomorrow Tonight” is a rootsy shuffle that chronicles Malin’s maturation into manhood with equal parts nostalgia and defiance. As the album progresses and continues to pick up steam, Malin’s winning combination of punk cred, melodic craft and working class aesthetic is fully displayed, adding validity to his candidacy to be a Springsteen-like figure for the indie rock/iPod generation (the fact that a couple of unspectacular tracks exist on the record does not cause great damage, as after all, this is an iPod generation). Not that Malin can approximate the brilliance of the Boss, or that Glitter in the Gutter is Malin’s Born to Run, but he does hold his own on “Broken Radio”, a duet with Springsteen that, not unexpectedly, is one of the most affecting tracks on the album. Solemn and splendid, the all too brief ballad focuses on the effortless vocal harmonies created by two artists who share a kinship, an artistic bent toward the commoner and the down-trodden.

Whether a song about an anarchist lover (“Black Haired Girl”), a country-tinged track purported to be in tribute to royalty Lucinda Williams (“Lucinda”), or a tale of a hard luck dreamer driven by a mellow rock groove (“Love Streams”), Malin’s material brims with the confidence of a songwriter firmly established in his purpose and supremely comfortable in his skin. The project has a sense of forward motion and momentum, growing in quality and furthering thematic unity as it goes. “Love Streams” is one of several tracks on the album which lyrically summates the themes at the album’s core. Malin sings: “Spent my childhood in the movies/ With Lenny Bruce and young Joe Buck/ One day you wake up and you’re 30/ And you can’t even drive a truck/ I’m not wasting away my dreams/ In shadows and shade, love streams/ I’m not wasting away.”

Even when Malin adds a cover to the mix, as he does with the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young”, the track fits seamlessly into the record’s mood. Though written by Paul Westerberg, Malin makes words like, “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success/ Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung/ Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled/ It beats picking cotton and waiting to be forgotten/ We are the sons of no one, bastards of young” his own.

Reviewers and listeners without a great deal of prior exposure to Malin’s work are likely to make a commotion about the number and prominence of the various guests who grace the album. In addition to the aforementioned appearances of Springsteen and Homme, Glitter in the Gutter features contributions from longtime friend Adams, the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan and Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett. Yet the album does not become guest-dominated, and there is never a feeling that Malin is trotting out his famous friends to prove his relevance or receive added attention. Instead Malin has competently surrounded himself with musicians willing to be absorbed into his vision for the project. With the exception of Springsteen’s felt presence on “Broken Radio”, each guest artist contributes without great spotlight on their specific part, blending instead into the whole. 

Glitter in the Gutter truly is a consistent, workable vision, full of memorable tunes and images and should serve to cement Malin’s reputation as a tunesmith with a true grasp of what shakes and moves real people through their real lives.

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