Weird little surprises like this album are the things you live for as a music fan. It's one thing to have high expectations for an album for months, or even years, and have it exceed all your expectations, but it's the from-out-of-nowhere surprises from artists you didn't think capable of such a thing that truly knock your socks off. Go on the net right now (well, if you're reading this, then you likely are already), sample some songs by wise-ass, tongue-in-cheek punks D Generation, then give the new CD by their former singer, Jesse Malin, a listen and you'll hear precisely what I'm talking about. Hell, you won't even recognize his voice, the difference is so startling.
With his debut solo album, The Fine Art of Self Destruction, Malin steps out of the outrageous punk role he had with his old band, and slips into singer/songwriter mode with astonishing ease, eschewing the boisterous music he specialized in, in exchange for a more introspective, country-rock sound. It may sound like a total cop-out, but with Malin's aching croon (sounding like a weird mix of Pete Yorn, Ron Sexsmith, and Joey Ramone), his personal, and at times autobiographical lyrics, some downright soulful melodies, and some equally surprising stellar production provided by longtime buddy, and snarky alt-country poster boy, Ryan Adams, this album is one that's rich in heart-rending beauty, tough-but-lovable gutter poetry, and plenty of genuine emotion.
Like a certain well-known New Jersey singer (no, not Jon Bon Jovi), Malin celebrates the underdogs, the social outcasts, and the blue-collar workers, but unlike that other guy, you feel there's a real connection between Malin and the city streets. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's opening track, "Queen of the Underworld", as the song takes on a striking similarity to the music of the great Ron Sexsmith, but with more of a gritty feel, contradicted by chiming 12-string guitars, as he sings lines that bleed with poeticism: "And all across this alien nation / Or in a town called Resume Speed / Out on the highway of perfection / We only wanted to be free." On "Wendy", Malin ditches the "baby let's leave this sad town" sentiment that the aforementioned Jerseyite specialized in, and instead sings about a bohemian girl who took off, but left the poor guy behind. Over a contrasting, upbeat arrangement, Malin pines for the one who got away, singing, "She liked Tom Waits and the poet's hat / '60s Kinks and Kerouac." "Riding on the Subway" starts with an echoing sound of a conga drum, like hearing buskers as you descend down into a subway tunnel, and a funky upright bass line begins, as Malin blurts out random scenarios about "Harlem Mommas", pizza boys, buskers, and three-card monty players, breaking suddenly into a pretty chorus (a touch reminiscent of "Mrs. Robinson"): "Machines go up and down / Spray paint gospel on the beat / Another billboard reads / Come to Miami Beach."
The Fine Art of Self Destruction is loaded with instantly memorable songs. The plaintive "High Lonesome" has Malin sounding like he's singing from past experience with his old band, as he drawls, "Once a music business lawyer tried to wine and dine destroy you . . . Through your brand new shades you might not see the sharks." The Tex-Mex country tune "Almost Lonesome" is a bittersweet tale of his childhood, being raised by a single mother, sneaking into punk clubs and obsessing about movies ("My sister liked John Travolta / But I wanted Billy Jack"), while "X-mas" is a classic example of the sad sack moping during the holiday season (the way-too-obvious sleigh bells are forgivable . . . barely). Meanwhile, the songs "Downliner" and especially the shimmering "TKO" are flat-out brilliant, so catchy, that halfway through the first listen they feel as familiar as a comfy blanket.
As great as all those songs are, two songs form the emotional core of the album. "The Fine Art of Self Destruction" flashes sketches of different people down on their luck over a melody driven by chiming, echoing guitars and Malin's own distinctive voice: "The old time TV movies / Thinking you got it made / Like a dancer with a desk job / A dee-jay with a list to play." It's the stupendous ballad "Brooklyn", though, that is the album's centerpiece. Presented in two versions, a straight country ballad, as well as a loud, electric rocker, Malin's tribute to the New York borough rings truer, and sounds more sincere than Ryan Adams' own "New York, New York", as he belts out lines whose down-and-out romanticism rival Tom Waits's best work: "No more couches to surf / Only beaches in your dreams / No more trannies near work / It's still a drag walking in Queens." The electric version of "Brooklyn" at the end of the album is superb, concluding in a boisterous swirl of guitars.
Producer Ryan Adams deserves much of the credit for crafting such a gorgeous album. His arrangements, a blend of mellow tinges with balls-out rock 'n' roll, are never showy and over the top, and his guitar playing (he plays all the electric guitar on the record) is top-notch, ranging from feedback-heavy drones, to nimble solos, to little touches like Tex-Mex and surf guitar add a huge amount of character (still, sleigh bells, Ryan? Sleigh bells?). As for Malin, his songs never waver. Aside from a strange, momentary regression to his punk-metal howl in the chorus of "Solitaire", there's never a bad moment. In "High Lonesome", Malin sings, "I'm dropping out of circulation/Gonna change my occupation/Become a small time operator/Or another lonely painter." When you give a listen to The Fine Art of Self Destruction you'll know that isn't going to happen anytime soon. We're in the midst of a major talent.