[1 June 2008]
Though he hit 40 this past January and has become a formidable singer-songwriter, some people are still annoyed that Jesse Malin ever abandoned his D Generation non-glory days. On his new live disc, an obnoxious audience member repeatedly shouts out Malin’s glam-punk past, which is met with annoyance, contempt, and even embarrassment.
The hesitance is understandable. Jesse Malin’s first two solo albums (2003’s The Fine Art of Self-Destruction and 2004’s The Heat), both produced by Ryan Adams, rival if not surpass D Generation’s recorded output, not to mention Adams’. Malin’s weary, marble-mouthed voice can be an acquired taste. At its best, it can suggest the heights of Neil Young or Richard Manuel. At its worst, he can approach the dregs of Adam Duritz. But his songwriting is reliably nuanced and poignant, generous with hooks and vivid imagery, if a bit heavy on obtuse poetics. Following 2007’s disappointing Glitter in the Gutter, easily his weakest solo album, and April’s import-only covers disc On Your Sleeve, Malin now unleashes his first live album, available digitally but limited only to a thousand tangible copies. Taped over two Christmastime nights in Malin’s beloved New York City, Mercury Retrograde documents an intimate acoustic set, stripped down versions of solo tracks augmented by personalized anecdotes, observational remarks and humorous soapboxes.
As an album, Mercury suffers from a weak set list. Career highlights “Wendy” and “Since You’re in Love” are given lively and somber treatments, respectively, but many of Malin’s stronger compostions (“Queen of the Underworld”, “Mona Lisa”, “Basement Home”, a mournful “Bastards of Young” cover) are omitted in favor of duller material. The five selections from Glitter hardly benefit from the sparse setting, proving that album’s weaknesses stretched well beyond its much maligned L.A. overproduction. The “Black Haired Girl” rendition is so wobbly and tentative that its studio gloss is missed. “High Lonesome” and “Aftermath” sound like the exact same song, and that song is “Take It Easy”. Unlike many sets in the MTV Unplugged/VH1 Storytellers vein, there is not much discernible deviation from the recorded versions.
Beyond his own numbers, Malin covers Neil Young’s “Helpless,” purposefully ignoring that D Generation recorded their own song called “Helpless”. Show closer “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, that great rock and roll Christmas song popularized by Darlene Love and later U2, rollicks into Elvis Costello’s “Radio Sweetheart”, which seems to leave the audience dumbfounded, its call-and-response potential unrealized. In fact, for such an interactive set, there seems to be a considerable gulf between performer and audience. The latter seems largely detached, possibly drunk, and unable or unwilling to indulge in the fanfare that often makes live albums (and live shows) so exciting. Malin’s offhand remarks seem to get more applause than his songs. No matter how unworthy, such tepid reactions make it tough to get excited about this music, which detracts from the album. Fannish set-list quibbles aside, these performances deserve a more receptive audience.
As the disc wears on, Malin’s monologues grow progressively more entertaining. “Going Out West” is presaged with an exposition longer than the song itself: a spot-on indictment of overused terms (“nice”, “random”), shifting sexual mores (“Ten years ago, when I was the nut that called up at three in the morning, you were that fucking asshole that called at three in the morning and wants to get laid. Now it’s like, oh yeah, the booty call, Friends, Sex and the City, it’s okay”.) and the Bush administration.
Were it not clear enough from his music, such tangents make it clear: this dude is pure old-NYC traditionalist, suspicious of the Internet, cell phones, technology and modernity in general. His bromides in praise of terrestrial record stores seem particularly ill-placed on what is virtually an online-only album. He pines for a metropolis that barely exists anymore, as though looking at Carrie Bradshaw’s world through Travis Bickle’s eyes. He even peddles a hacky “church of rock” schtick cribbed straight from Springsteen, and executed far less effectively here. His comments are sometimes funny, but just as often painfully self-righteous, as though trying too hard to portray a befuddled observer who just doesn’t get why culture has changed since 1978. He uses Jethro Tull as a go-to punchline, and is surprised to learn Hannah and Her Sisters is a good movie.
Malin’s catalog is rich with constant references to pop music’s past. His encyclopedic command of the rock vernacular would be impressive, were it not for the fact that nearly all of his references predate the Reagan administration. This old-school element is crucial to Malin’s appeal, but his between-song emanations hammer it home so insistently that what once seemed dangerously nostalgic becomes alarmingly, unhealthily out-of-touch, and after 65 minutes, it comes to harness his talents. On Mercury, Malin more than ever sounds like a graying throwback, a Luddite even. He no longer sounds retro, just old.