It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Minneapolis’ Mark Mallman. One gets the sense just from hearing his fake (or serendipitous) last name that he probably has a great love for camp’s ambiguous stance towards modern life, and his open-hearted embrace of publicity stunts only furthers the impression. His most famous event of the kind was his “Song Marathon” in 1999, during which he performed nonstop for 26.2 hours, seriously damaging his voice in the process. That hasn’t prevented him from making plans for “Marathon Two” (set to go twice as long as the first) and “Marathon Three” (three times as long, natch) or pulling off other pranks like “Human Insect”, a twelve-hour performance done from inside a refrigerator box.
All of this, combined with his practice of making a big show of his wild, tortured artistry, makes Mallman sound about as endearing as a theater major bursting into an unaccountable recitation of Waiting for Godot in the middle of the student center in order to make it seem like he just can’t prevent the creativity from exploding out of him. It comes as some surprise, then, that his music is mostly modest, and steeped in craft rather than gimmickry. His fourth album, Mr. Serious, finds him in territory first staked out by David Bowie on Hunky Dory, a place where the performer’s suggestions of outrageousness are belied by straightforward if somewhat theatrical songwriting. Mallman is a piano man, which accounts for most of the Elton John comparisons he receives, but Mallman is too sprightly and not soulful enough to consider him a true descendant of John’s. His rasp and unapologetic introspection make him his own man despite his clear influences. Simply borrowing grandiosity from the past does not make Mallman a thief, and anyone who puts as much care into his music as Mallman clearly does deserved to be judged on his own merits rather than by merely holding him up against the glories of history.
With that said, Mallman doesn’t always acquit himself well. His sound is certainly appealing, and it doesn’t take many hours of listening to modern rock radio to feel relief that there are people like this in the world, who know how to make their records exciting in ways other than by stomping on the distortion pedal. And his voice, while sometimes tumbling into clichés of faux-haggardness, is mostly warm and inviting. But if Mallman has one major weakness, it’s that his songwriting grabs for the big emotions without filling in the details that make them ring true. Many of his songs are like over-inflated balloons, bigger without being better. In some cases, the extra bombast doesn’t do much damage, but when Mallman is trying to set his confessional angst against one of these turgid backdrops, it drags the persona down with the song. Which is too bad for Mallman, since, one suspects, he doesn’t think he can make it without the added help an outsized personality gives a rock performer. It all makes him seem like a rather odd creature. After all, he could make his music more eccentric, more attention grabbing, but he keeps all such tactics out of his music, instead stuffing his public face with them.
In the end, Mallman has a way of being exciting and exhausting all at once, sounding like a breath of fresh (if retro) air and a missed opportunity at the same time. His songs are good but not great, usually falling short by a solid hook or two. Mallman puts smart chords together, but few — if any — of the melodies laid on top stick to the brain. Few lyrics come across as poetic; many more make you groan. The Mall Man offers his listeners just enough to get them interested, and maybe even enough to get them rooting for him, but Mr. Serious shows that however pure his heart and noble his intentions, Mallman appears destined to stay stuck in the pack, better than most but not by enough.