Blister Soul

Vigilantes of Love (Capricorn Records)

Vigilantes of Love were playing a one-off show in the fall of 2000, I believe, with another rootsy band in the area. Several hundred people packed into the gymnasium of a small Christian school outside of Pittsburgh just to see them. I wasn’t familiar with either band. There was little preamble and then a striped pajama-clothed Bill Mallonee swiveled in front of the microphone to murmur something about just getting out of bed, before launching into the first tune of his band’s set. Several hours later, I left that gym blown away by the Vigilantes. (I was less impressed with the snoozy Christians-in-a-band-not-Christian-band band who followed VOL, even though they brought a bonafide Leslie speaker with them. But that’s a different story.) I was so smitten that I spent the next few weeks scouring every music store in the Pittsburgh area for VOL albums.

The band mostly played tunes from their then-recent Audible Sigh. Mallonee and his accompanying rhythm section were loud, and the amount of squall he was generating from an amplified and overdriven acoustic guitar only increased as the night went on. Sometimes Mallonee would stop playing guitar and arch his hand above his head, a torrent of words pouring out of his mouth. And sometimes he would tap his head with his hand like he was shaking a few remaining syllables out. His lyrics were thoughtful, with poetic runs that factored in the same sort of grace that haunts Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. This, I thought, was really something.

Vigilantes of Love formed in Athens, Georgia, in the early 1990s. They were part of the same music scene that, over 30 odd years, has nurtured artists ranging from R.E.M. to Matthew Sweet to Drive-By Truckers. I guess “they” isn’t quite accurate; Mallonee had a revolving-door assortment of bandmates, and there was little consistency from album to album as far as musicians are concerned. What was consistent, though, was Mallonee’s songwriting. His songs in VOL were indebted to American roots music and all of the storytelling tropes that go with its storied past. Lots of sonic ground was covered over the band’s discography — floor-stomping rockers, delicate folk ballads, and impressionistic country workouts often shared space under the same album cover. “Roots rock” or “folk rock” are probably the easiest descriptors, but Mallonee’s writing doesn’t pigeonhole easily.

I didn’t catch Blister Soul, the band’s fifth album, until long after it was released. My first foray into the band’s catalog in 2000 yielded four albums, including two that became quick favorites (the VOL version 1.0 Killing Floor and Audible Sigh). From there, my collection expanded slowly — this was before digital music could be easily streamed or purchased — and there was something rewarding about happening upon a banged-up copy of Slow Dark Train in a used music store in the relatively music-barren portions of rural western Pennsylvania. So Blister Soul doesn’t have the nostalgia factor involved that some of Mallonee’s other albums have.

Blister Soul isn’t my favorite VOL album, but it’s an important one in the band’s evolution. The first three releases were largely lo-fi endeavors, with Mallonee playing most of the instruments more often than not. The move to a dedicated band on 1994’s major label debut Welcome to Strugglesville still didn’t shake the handcrafted vibe. The step toward glossy production values finally came with Blister Soul. Producer John Keane gives the album a radio-friendly approach, which mostly works. I don’t think it’s selling out, really, but there seems to be a concerted effort toward making the music accessible. Keane also helped trim off the fat a bit; Mallonee is a prolific songwriter, and his career high points usually coincide with someone (sometimes Mallonee himself) cutting back. As a result, Blister Soul is a remarkably solid album.

One of Mallonee’s greatest gifts as a songwriter is the ability to use the specific as a jumping-off point for broad discussions of the human condition, like in “Skin.” VOL fans tend to hold “Skin” as Blister Soul’s highlight — in fact, it’s considered one of the best songs Mallonee wrote with the band. It’s hard to argue with that. “Skin” is a heart-breaking take on Vincent van Gogh’s decline in mental health. It’s sung initially from the point of view of Vincent’s younger brother Theo, but dollies the camera back as the song progresses:

Now look if you’re gonna come around here
And say those sort of things
You gotta take a few on the chin
Yeah you’re talking about sin and redemption
Well you better wear your thickest skin
Sometimes you can’t please everyone
Sometimes you can’t please anyone at all
Sew your heart onto your sleeve
And wait for the ax to fall

So as the lyrics speak directly to van Gogh, they’re also a meditation on the risks and, sometimes, rewards of the creative process. It helps that the song is built around simple, lovely chord progression — Mallonee’s initial finger-picked guitar work is filled out by more guitars, a violin, and eventually a subtle pedal steel.

Elsewhere on Blister Soul, “Bolt Action” uses opaque introspection to frame the mindset of a (possibly) potential sniper. Despite its leaden bluesy hook, the song’s lyrics are mysterious, terse, and dole out enough specifics to make them stick. Mallonee does the same on “5 Miles Outside of Monroe.” The fuzzed-out lead guitar work (courtesy of the late, great Newton Carter) gives some musical urgency, and the casual details hovering near something more sinister mesh well with the audio crunch:

Five miles outside of Monroe, they said man there just been killed
Say you don’t wanna talk about it much — twenty dollars says you will
[…]
One day when the bottom drops out we’ll lay this thing to rest
The truth sleeping like dynamite inside this paper flesh

Often, Mallonee’s songs revolve around how grace manifests in the smallest, most mundane parts of life. He does this in a way that’s rarely obnoxious. His faith — and his struggle with it — are always present in his songs, even if not on the surface. He has a sizable fanbase who don’t hold to any religious belief, and I think this is a credit to how approachable his songs often are. He’s not putting on airs — he’s just being himself. This sort of songwriting is an inextricable part of who he is.

When I first heard VOL 15 years ago, I felt an immediate and natural connection to what was happening in Mallonee’s music. His best songs — all his songs, really — have an earnest quality that digs into the soul and takes up permanent residence.