Monday, July 5, 2010

Vigilantes of Love: Notes from the Cliffs (1997)

(As published in WORLD ... )

Because the very nature of their chosen genre inhibits elaborate intellectual maneuvering, even a lot of learning can be a dangerous thing where rock-and-rollers are concerned.

But Bill Mallonee, the leader of the Athens, GA-based Vigilantes of Love, is--and has been for some time now--an exception. Unabashedly well read, he typically squeezes more literary, biblical, and historical allusions into one album than most of his peers squeeze into an entire career.

"Most of the people who listen to us are pretty bookish," he told WORLD, "but they're not academic types so much as Romantics--Christian Romantics, if there is such a thing. They've all read a lot of C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner, and Flannery O'Connor. Right now I'm reading Ellen Foster, a book by Kaye Gibbons. She's a Southern novelist. And I just finished Malcolm Muggeridge's Jesus, the Man Who Lived, which is a great book."

He has also just finished the latest Vigilantes album, Slow Dark Train, the songs of which offer such endnote-worthy moments as "Salome's overweight. / She broke Jacob's ladder" ("Locust Years"), "We all need somebody to lie to us, I suppose. / That's why everybody needs a Tokyo Rose" ("Tokyo Rose"), and "How is it I am found in my Judas skin spinning down" ("Judas Skin).

And the lyrics of the matrimony-affirming "Love Cocoon" read like nothing so much as Southern-Gothic John Donne: "Honey, let's get together and build a tabernacle of holy flesh and holy mirth. / Let's take what's coming, enjoy every inch...." Set to the loosest front-porch folk-rock in the group's six-album oeuvre, the song runs a high-art impulse through a low-art sieve and comes up with finer results than those usually dreamt of in the mainstream-music philosophy.

That "flesh" has long been one of Mallonee's favorite images is confirmed by the presence of the songs "Blister Soul" and "Skin" on the Vigilantes' other recent release, V.O.L., a sixteen-track, career-spanning compilation.

"I don't know," Mallonee laughs when asked about his epidermal fixation. "I guess we all have to learn to either live with [our flesh] or hate it. I seem to have a lot of tunes with medical terminology running around in them."

One such song is "Double Cure," one of four new ones recorded especially for V.O.L. Not only do the lyrics contain his most explicit declaration of faith in Christ to date ("I wanna show you my allegiance, Lord. / Yes, I wanna be a son of yours"), but Mallonee's lead guitar underpins his crying-in-the-wilderness vocal with the melody of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name."

Still, despite such accomplishments, the head Vigilante still hesitates to describe what he does as "art." "It's just rock-and-roll and pop culture," he demurs. "I take what I do very seriously, but 'recording artist'? I don't know. I didn't start doing this until I was thirty years old.

"I've just now gotten to where the 'singer-songwriter' hat feels comfortable."

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