Jesse Malin released his first studio album, “The Fine Art of Self Destruction”, back in 2002 and went on to release another seven up to and including 2019’s “Sunset Kids”, without ever quite becoming that well known. It’s a name that many recognise but, despite high profile producers such as Ryan Adams and, more recently, Lucinda Williams, many outside a small circle of those in the know, would struggle to name one of his songs or the album it was taken from, despite much critical acclaim and the awards he has received. Perhaps it’s his past association with the hard core and punk scene that has prevented wider appreciation of his music, though Malin has been writing very good, broad-spectrum songs for some time now.
If there’s any justice, his latest album, “Sad and Beautiful World”, will be the big breakthrough recording for him, because this is an outstanding album.
For those that have read Martin Johnson’s excellent recent interview with Malin, here at Americana UK, you’ll know that much of this album was conceived during lockdown periods and that some of the songs are a hangover from his previous album recording, with Lucinda Williams producing. You’d think that might give this album a slightly schizophrenic feel but, on the contrary, this album comes across as very organic and, without the specific knowledge, you’d be hard-pressed to identify the interlopers from the previous recording. Perhaps the most obvious is ‘Backstabbers’, because of Williams’ vocals on the track (‘The Way We Used to Roll’ being the other song from those sessions), but it feels like it belongs on this recording; it’s very much a part of the whole. It’s a song about New York and Malin is very much a New Yorker – yet this album also nods a little towards the writing of Texans like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, as well as displaying just a hint of the Laurel Canyon sound associated with Jackson Browne. To throw something else into the mix, Malin’s voice is sometimes reminiscent of Tom Petty, though that may be amplified by his fine cover of the Petty song ‘Crawling Back to You’, which seems almost made for him and also sounds like he’s singing about his much loved, native New York. Fair to say, if you enjoy the music of any of those artists you’ll find much to enjoy in this recording, though it’s not derivative of those artists in any way. Malin is very much his own man. “Sad and Beautiful World” is, pretty much, what it says on the tin. Many of these songs have a melancholy within them and, given what the world’s been through over the last couple of years, you’d expect a songwriter of Malin’s quality to reflect that, but they also celebrate the beautiful and there is optimism at work here that isn’t always, initially, apparent.
On the opening track, ‘Greener Pastures’, there’s that hint of cynicism that the grass is always greener elsewhere, but it’s tempered with a positivity that suggests you can find that greener grass – “Greener pastures always wait for you/ Tell the story one more time/ What you ask for starry-eyed and blue/ You can make it if you try”. Similarly, in the slightly spacey ‘Sinner’, though much of the song is downbeat, there is that hint of positivity that always seems to be there, “I’ll be a sinner and I’ll be alright/ I’ll be around for the rest of my life”. It’s one of the more interesting aspects of this album, and of Malin’s songwriting that, while many of the song titles, and the songs themselves, hint at dark and depressing stories, particularly on first listening, that’s really not how the album comes across as a whole. Much of it is a reflection on the beauty of sadness but in a surprisingly positive way.
A lot of the listening to this album was done in the car and it is a great driving album, something else that comes as a surprise. It has a road trip feel about it, but not one through the wide-open spaces of America, more of one crawling past the outer edges of small towns and cities late at night, catching glimpses of the little events that drive peoples lives. The album is full of stories and Malin, over the course of this album, emerges as something of a troubadour, roaming the highways and byways of America, collecting the tales of people ordinary and extraordinary to populate his songs. It’s a role that suits him well because, by all accounts, Malin is happiest when on the road and, having lived most of his life that way, having started out in bands in his early teens, it clearly works for him, particularly in terms of his songwriting. Songs like ‘Before You Go’, ‘Tall Black Horses’, ‘Lost Forever’, ‘A Little Death’ – they all paint such vivid pictures of people and the different lives they lead.
The musicianship on this album is terrific, with his regular band backing him and a variety of guest musicians, including the aforementioned Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams, making small contributions, the album is nothing but strong performances. This time out Malin has decided to produce himself, working with bandmate Derek Cruz and Sound Engineer, Geoff Sanoff and it’s a move that has definitely paid off. The album has a very distinct personality that seems to be all Jesse Malin.
Perhaps they should’ve resisted the decision to make this the first double album of Malin’s career. It’s a strong set of songs but it would’ve been a tighter, leaner album if they could’ve brought themselves to shed a couple of the lesser tracks, though the editing would’ve made for tough decisions.
This has to be the best album of Malin’s career and if it doesn’t bring him to the attention of a wider audience then it’s hard to see what will. It has broad appeal without ever accepting commercialism over creativity and its mix of rockers and heartstring tuggers means there’s something here for most listeners. It’s just a great album.