In the hands of most rock-and-rollers, even a lot of learning can be a dangerous thing. The music's structural limitations provide less room for intellectual maneuvering than a mine field does for blind man's bluff, and the results are often, metaphorically speaking, equally disastrous.
A significant exception continues to be Bill Mallonee, the leader of the Athens, Ga.-based Vigilantes of Love. Unabashedly well read, he typically squeezes more literary, biblical, and historical allusions into one album than many 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 Kay Gibbons. She's a southern novelist. And I just finished Malcolm Muggeridge's Jesus, the Man Who Lived, which is a great book."
The songs on Mr. Mallonee's latest Vigilantes album, Slow Dark Train, offer such footnote-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 Southern-Gothic John Donne: "Honey, let's get together and build a tabernacle of holy flesh and holy mirth." 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 philosophy of mainstream music.
That "flesh" has long been one of Mr. 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 16-track, career-spanning compilation of their best songs.
"I don't know," Mr. 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, "Double Cure," is 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 Mr. 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 30 years old. I've just now gotten to where the 'singer-songwriter' hat feels comfortable."