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52. Jugular – Vigilantes of Love

JUGULAR

Vigilantes of Love

Wow, if ever a title of an album matched the contents it holds it is VoL’s “Jugular.” That is where the project aims and it is where it hits and does not let go until you are spent! I remember the first time I heard this project I was sitting in the office of Frontline Records as the management was trying to decide whether to ink a distribution deal for this project into the Christian Bookstore market. It was probably prudent for the long-term success of the fledgling distribution company that they decided to pass. Despite being the most consistently controversial record label for the time, Jugular was too much for even them.

Fortunately for me I received a copy of the record that day and it has remained a favorite ever since!

To call Bill Mallonee of Vigilantes of Love prolific is like calling Portland wet. He has managed to release over 30 records containing hundreds of songs in just a 20 year span without losing anything in terms of quality and integrity. He is simply a songwriting machine. Four VoL albums graced this list and many more were under serious consideration and most like should have been included.

This should serve as a warning that many people may be offended by some of the content contained on the project, both subject wise and particular language used. Mallonee is a fearless songwriter and his content is as wide as the universe and as honest as can be found, but his use of profanity has caused many to shrink from his work. That is a shame.

I have long gotten past the issue of the usage of certain words and whether a Christian is free to use them within context. Here I believe Mallonee is well within his rights and the contextual usage is dead on and actually not that far removed from similar language used in the Bible, if not sanitized over the years. The Apostle Paul was not one to mince words and felt quite free to use words and phrases that many today would be both surprised by and, I’m sure, offended.

Throughout this review we will highlight several songs that stand out and the reason they make this record such an important one in christian music history. I do also want to highly recommend that the reader also try and track down a copy of Driving Nails as it contains some of the best content in Mallonee’s career as well.

One of the real beauties of Jugular is its pure simplicity. Guitar, limited drum, harmonica and accordion pretty much consume the entire project…sounds pretty hip and edgy already, doesn’t it? Recorded feverishly over a three day period it really is a wonderful work of art.

The album kicks off with “Weak One Now” with a great acoustic hook and poignant lyrics. The accordion is the primary melody carrying instrument here. Mallonee’s Dylanesque vocals drip with sincerity and authenticity. Whether the world of the Church, words lose their meaning when not matched with the actions to support their truth claims.

The album fllows with “Songs on the Radio,” a blistering critique on the mediocrity of what passes for music on the radio and art within the confines of modern culture. He does so, like Bruce Cockburn, by forcing more words into the lyric than actually fit the song.

They were arguing the merits of Freud and Darwin on MTV
Oh, the things they foist upon men’s minds in the blessed name of free inquiry
Buy stock in psychiatric hospitals
Soon there’ll be no vacancy
If they see no one’s at home out there, then someone else has got to fill that need

The songs on the radio still suck, I’m afraid
It is my turn to drive, and I can barely stay awake

The real victim of Mallonee’s venom is the American culture and buying, selling and pimping…quality content is the victim of commercialism’s dominance.

Now when a need is nonexistent you’ve got to create desire
Eastern Europe is the most likely buyer
They’ve been dying for it, crying for it ever since the wall
For syringes, porn, designer drugs, orgasms and shopping malls

Won’t you pardon my imposition and my lack of tact and flair?
I was looking for salvation
I was hoping you might tell me where
I can smell it on your breath, smell it on your hair
I can almost reach and grasp it, but my vision is so impaired

‘Cos there’s dung on the airwaves as far as I can see

The following song is “Something to Hold On To.” In the poet yearns for something that’s worthy og grabbing hold, whether it be love, truth or peace, but is continually struggling with the nagging questions and pictures the lengths he is willing to go in order to discover this thing worthy of being held on to.

Nicodemus had his questions
Thomas had his doubts
We have not been left in the dark to work the whole thing out
This clinical environment
To believe is just to fake
I would thrust my hands inside the wound if it will bring you all to faith

But Mallonee is not without hope and the listener begins to catch a glimpse of where his trust is found and it is clear it does not reside within himself.

I will boast in my brokenness
Revel in my defeat
I will let you kick my ass if it’s what you need from me
See, pilgrims without weapons sometimes get nailed to a tree
They use no anesthetics, but the surgery’s guaranteed

“As Big as Christ” bemoans the reality that very few of us ever ask the really important questions. We are relatively content with mediocrity and are afraid to deal with the greater realities.

See, I have no motivation
I have not any drive
I’ve got no hunger
Fascination with the higher things in life
Friends say they’re so happy
Friends say they’re well-fed
They’re well-drugged and laid and entertained
So beautiful and deadly boring…

…Pardon me if I interpose a question
Big as Christ
Smaller than your life

“Love Cocoon” is one of the two most controversial songs on the entire despite that fact it does not contain any words that any would find offensive. But rather, with this song, it is all about the content. Using imagery not far from the Bible’s own Song of Solomon, Mallonee explores the world of physical, sexual intimacy. Many listeners are unable to get past the first two verses to really realize just what Mallonee is expressing here and what a powerful and glorious gift intimacy expressed within the marriage covenant is. Mallonee starts with a picture of the passion of intimacy when he sings:

Honey, I wanna attack your flesh with abandon
I wanna look for your fruits
I wanna put my hands on them
Pump up the thermostat beneath your skin
I wanna uncover your swimming hole and dive right in

I’m a moth when I fly to the light of my doom
You wrap me up in your love
Love cocoon

But soon the listener understands the direction Mallonee is going as he struggles with the presence of this passion and its origins.

There’s an explosion of grace dripping in my bed
Is it somewhere else?
Is it in my head?
Is it weak and tender?
Is it rough and ready?
Is it fragile and delicate?
Is it rock-hard and steady?

Mallonee also wants to clearly differentiate his expression from how the world pictures the same act.

Now the world keeps on banging, and they come and go
It’s just a part of their scenery
A part of their show
But I got this wedding band wrapped around my finger
Honey, I’ll be your poet
Darlin’ I’ll be your singer

Mallonee finishes with a true testament to a holy and Biblical form of intimacy to leave no sense of confusion.

Some call it freedom
Some call it shackle
Honey, let’s get together and build a tabernacle of holy flesh and holy mirth
We’ll confute the enemy and enjoy the worth

You wrap me up in your love cocoon…

“In the Morning” follows with the struggles within the marriage relationship. Unlike the previous, this time it is the struggles of the relationship that takes center stage. The music is somber and matches the content.

The folk driven “Thorn in Your Flesh” is wonderful expression of grace. Mallonee pleads for the listener to reach deep inside the wounds and find God’s grace.

“Take No Prisoners” subtly shows my Mallonee is one of the finest acoustic guitar players out there that no one knows about. The song points to a style that will later become a musical staple for the band. The song of lost ultimately reflects on the loss of the first love in the Christian faith and the constant need for repentance.

The more traditional blues influenced “Watching the Moonlight” reminds me of early Larry Norman and speaks, like much of the album, to the concept of grace, from both a spiritual and emotional perspective. While the more upbeat, but musically similar “era-wise” blues number “Flames of Hell” follows with a Gospel message and style similar to the Glen Kaiser blues albums.

“America” starts with a Gospel flared instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” before merging into a straight folk tune bemoaning the loss of America his father spoke of and loved so much. Rather than the expected liberal attack on the country, the song actually is a call of repentance and return to foundational principles of hard work and faith. The plea is for the Church to be the Church in America and understand her role, but notes her struggle with fame and riches.

Where Love Cocoon caused an uproar over the content it was “Drunk On the Tears” that many found objectionable because of the use of a vulgarity. It is a shame that so many missed this powerful song – a song I believe is the very best Mallonee has ever written – because of not understanding the use of words within particular content and even the Bible’s own use of profane language when needed.

“Drunk on the Tears” starts with Mallonee bemoaning the many different sins of society. From the business and political elite, to the casual drugging of society and the depths at which a woman will go to make ends meet. This is dark and sad set against the back drop of acoustic guitar and harmonica. But it is when Mallonee turns his attention toward religious hypocrisy that songs begins its lyrical tension.

Jim and Tammy and Reverend Swaggart
They don’t look like Jesus, and they’re a whole lot fatter
Don’t miss the truth for a stupid sideshow
Don’t confuse the cup with the contents it holds

Mallonee then turns the finger back at himself and the struggles he faces and his current state of depravity and his need for the kind of “drink” that God provides.

God, I need a drink, and I need one fast
Make it a strong one
One that’ll last
Have You got anything that’s been selling brisk
For a soul diagnosed at a terminal risk?

At this point the song changes bot musically and lyrically. Instrumentation all but vanishes and the listeners is left Mallonee nearly whispering in his ear about the only truth that bring this peace man so feverishly desires…

Jesus, lover of my soul
Let me to Thy bosom fly
I’m so weak, and I’m so cold
And the lambs in the West so speedily die

Alibis roll off my tongue
I’m looking for ruins to hide among
I got a soul piled high to excess
With the wonderfully useless and the frivolous

The praise due Your name evades my lips
There’s no helping hand on my fingertips
I used to be someone
Now I’m not worth a shit
I got a truckload of things I’m trying to forget

Then in some real way the Gospel invades the hopelessness and Mallonee traces man’s frailty back to the garden and recognizes the promise of hope that was given even in that dark moment that doomed mankind.

Since back in the garden on the first page
Something about the cradle to the grave
The promise is broken
More promises made
All in the image I’ve so defaced

Played out on the pages of history
Dripping in blood that flows from a tree
Where the Father and Son part company
Come back together for you and me

Finally Mallonee reaches the climax of the reality that it was all paid for at the cross. The cursed man hanging from a tree actually was presenting Himself as divine and kingly.

I don’t know why You did it
What was Your motivation?
Crucifixion’s not a cool sensation
You had something to say, and You started to speak
The cross is the place for Your coronation speech

“Losin’ It” continues with a similar theme, but here Mallonee relents to his struggles and cries out for God just to hold him as he is “losin’ it.” Here the image used in the Biblical story of Job and the faith that continued despite the losses.

A more upbeat (lyrically and musical) number follows with “Words of Love Spoken” and sounds like a Derek Webb written Caedmon’s Call tune. Mallonee longs to have his soul hear the words of love spoken to him by God as he relishesthe truths contained.

The album closes with the somber and moving “Who Knows When the Sunrise Will Be.” The rhetorical question of the title reveals Mallonee’s ultimate realization that only God knows and controls all things, even those difficult events in personal and human history. He even quotes Martin Luther in the song regarding only Jesus could die for another.

The final verse shows a man who is ashamed in humanity’s sinful actions and notes the need for a Savior. Abortion, divorce and more topics reveal man’s ultimate need for God and Mallonee does not shrink back from offering the only answer to these wretched actions and personal failings.

Superlatives lack any real power to perfectly describe exactly how amazing this album truly is. No use trying.

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  1. June 7, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    You describe VoL/Mallonee’s debut perfectly, especially everything that’s right with it.

  2. Don
    June 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    I never got into VOL and think I have never heard his solo stuff. Will have to give it another try.

  3. Mr. Bultitude
    June 8, 2011 at 1:46 am

    This was the last VoL I got a “hard copy” of. It has a lot of great songs on it but I’m not sure if it’s my favourite Mallonee album. In fact, while I’d count Bill Mallonee as either my 1st or 2nd favourite songwriter (along with Mark Heard), unlike Mark Heard I don’t have that “one” album that I love from start to finish or one that I could say is my favourite Mallonee record.

    I always thought “America” was less about the country and more about his father and how he struggled and served the USA. “Drunk On The Tears” is an amazing song; it very well could be Mallonee’s best song.

  4. shawnuel
    June 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I agree with you a lot on this pick. It is not my ‘favorite’ of VOL/Mallonee, but it is probably the most important.

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