Sunday, March 06, 2016

The finely crafted art of not settling down

Sometime towards the turn of the millennium, I was speaking at a conference in the south of England. In between sessions I wondered into the shop looking for something to stimulate my rather torpid mind. I flicked through a couple of books and then thumbed through the CD rack until I came upon a white cover with a charcoal grey seascape on it.

It was called Free for Good by a band called Vigilantes of Love. I had vaguely heard of them but not heard anything by them. I bought the CD on the basis of the cover (cardboard tri-fold) and the description under the title of the first track on the lyric sheet: ‘everything from the ghettoization of faith music to yearning for my wife.’

I fell in love before I heard a note.

I took it to my car, put it in the player and went for a long drive listening over and over. The music was a revelation. I fell in love again. Here was a song writer of rare talent with a sharp focus on what was right and wrong with being people of faith. And here was a band that played up a storm.

So began a twenty-year journey with Bill Mallonee. His songs have sound-tracked sessions I’ve led at conferences, services I’ve conducted at my church; more importantly, they have enriched my evolving faith and grasp on just how it is I should be living in these troubled times. Like Mallonee,

I always felt the world was “off axis.” Not “the thing it should be.” I knew early on “I” was part of the problem, as well.

At their best his songs have provoked engagement with this world and the God whose shadow is cast across it. They have always entertained, made me smile and tap my feet. Of late his music has acquired a fresh depth. A string of albums from 2012’s Amber Waves to last year’s Lands and Peoples reveal a song writer at the peak of his powers.

And now comes Slow Trauma, an album he suggests is much taken up with death and the end of things. And yet on first acquaintance, it’s a bright work awash with mellow guitars and brisk songs about life on the road, the struggle to make ends meet and how we might hold love together.

On the basis of this work I’ve decided to avoid Denver cause ‘there ain’t nothing for you now.’ But I’ll keep listening to the track for the languid, note perfect guitar solo that leads back into the refrain, ‘doldrums in’s time you left this town’.

But leaving is ok because this is not an album about settling down. Mallonee might be reaching that age when most of us begin to think about slowing down, putting our feet up on the porch and letting life come to us (if it must). But he is always straining to see ‘over that last hill’ (as he sings on the final track) to see where the new set of wheels you get on the king’s highway will take you. Even dying is not really the end of it because we’re just waiting for the stone to be rolled away (presumably so we can get on with the journey).

And it’s this sense of restlessly moving on that brings us to the spiritual heart of this lovely record. The four line, one-minute opener alerts us to the fact that ‘what’s gonna save you and what makes you smile/sometimes, they are one and the same.’ It’s a reminder that being on the side of the angels sets our toes tapping and puts a smile on our faces; and if it doesn’t, then it’s because we’ve not heard God quite right.

Mallonee has always been at his best when he’s looking at the world and thinking about how faith helps us make sense of it. It seems to me that this is what Only Time will tell is about; is there an economic miracle round the corner or does the seeking of fame and fortune always result in ‘parcelling out the earth with barbed wire and hard sell’? It’s a key question of our age and one that is not answered in election manifestoes but in the choices our souls make.

Not that the church has much light to shed on this (sadly). ‘You cannot speak in tongues if you’ve got nothing to say.’ Perhaps there’s more enlightenment to be found on the journey ‘down these sad, back streets of doubt to a new and brighter day/waiting for the stone to be rolled away’. (what a great line that is!)

Slow Trauma is neither slow nor traumatic although it chronicles the pain of living with our eyes open. But it does so with a heart alive to the rumour of God out on the road. And it does so to an immaculate soundtrack of beautifully judged guitars, a great rhythm section, and gravelly rich vocals (all by Mallonee), occasionally supported by Maria Rose’s keyboards. The whole effect is dazzling. It’s a journey I’ll be wanting to take time and again because it gets better every time.

[Thanks to Bill for a pre-release copy of the album on which this review is based. Slow Trauma is released on 15 March and is available from his website]

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