Slow Dark Train 

Slow Dark Train 
The Vigilantes of Love 
Capricorn Records, 1997 

To use one of Bill Mallonee's favorite images, the Vigilantes of Love have been on a train ride for the last nine years, with plenty of detours and crew changes. And given the changes in the lineup but also the constant of Bill Mallonee, it's not surprising that their latest album, Slow Dark Train. is both like and unlike the VoL albums that preceded it.  

As usual the songs on this album cover the range from raucous electric rock to musically mellower folk. And Bill Mallonee's lyrics continue to honestly confront life in its complexities while maintaining hope. But unlike previous VoL albums, there is no one song on Slow Dark Train that grabs me and immediately makes VoL's appeal obvious, the kind of song that immediately made me reach for the repeat button on my CD player. But several of the songs have grown on me with repeated listening.  

The album opens with three fast, loud electric songs: "Locust Years," "Tokyo Rose," and "Black Crow." "Tokyo Rose" appeared on one of the special tapes made for the old VoL fan club as an acoustic tune; on "Slow Dark Train", Tom Crea's driving drumbeat and the electric guitar make a slight increase in tempo seem faster. A history major in college, Mallonee draws on the historical character of Tokyo Rose from World War II to examine contemporary betrayals of the truth: "We all need someone to lie to us, I suppose. That's why everyone needs a Tokyo Rose." The remainder of the album is a mix of slower and faster tunes. 

The lyrics are quintessential VoL: stark, introspective, and poetic. "Taking on Water" is a familiar extended metaphor, life as ocean voyage turned into a shipwreck story. "Hang on Every Word" sets up an interesting tension between the possible meanings of the title phrase: "hanging on every word" in the sense of listening intently, versus hanging in the sense of hanging back in reluctance, versus "hanging" in the sense of the gallows. Which meaning is intended? Or is there more than one?  

In recent years, Bill Mallonee has come to recognize that he suffers from periodic bouts of depression, which accounts for some of the darkness of his lyrics in general, but seems especially the case in the songs on Slow Dark Train. Some of the images in "Black Crow" and "Sitting" would be close to nihilistic, if not for the steady undercurrent of hope. The stark images of "Only a Scratch" ("Got sick on the main course, but here's the dessert." and "The entrance to your dream home looks like a prison door.") would be despairing if not for:  

    So come all ye weary and you ones that languish. 
    Come ye disconsolate and you deeply distressed. 
    I heard my dad's voice near the river of pain, 
    Near the river of love: they were one and the same.
The overall atmosphere is a little darker than the atmosphere of previous albums, which does make the hope stand out a bit more by contrast. "Points of My Departure" is a good example of this, beginning thus:  
    I know a man who wept a song about a mess he'd made 
    when bound up in the lashes of denying. 
    You know the chasm between what's done and said 
    but you can't blame a man for trying.
It finishes more positively:  
    Only the drowning know they're sinking. 
    Only the dead know they're not breathing. 
    I will pray this song and be forever grateful 
    as least as much as I am able.
The album's title comes from the last song, "Judas Skin," which Bill has cited as a particular example of his struggles with depression. The song is a brooding look at personal failure to believe in spite of plentiful evidence of God's care: "What is it that I fear? Why is it I don't trust? When hiding out becomes career, what am I covering up?" Even at his darkest, Mallonee can sing: "and when I come out of this spin and I see You're still my friend." 

The only song on the album not written in the past few years is a new version of the song "Love Cocoon," now a rollicking electric celebration of married sexual love reminiscent of the Song of Songs. Capricorn Records chose it for the first single from the album, prompting concern in some quarters that the song would become a sort of novelty hit that would overshadow the band's usual songs. The song's frank (although not obscene) metaphors apparently led to a decision by Family Christian Stores not to carry the album.  

The album features the lineup that has been touring for the past couple of years: Bill Mallonee (guitars, harmonica, piano, lead vocals), Chris Bland (bass, backing vocals) and Tom Crea (drums and percussion, who has recently been replaced by Scott Klopftenstein). They are joined by Phil Madeira on keyboards, Daryl Coyne on cello, and Mark Smith on percussion.  

The arrangements sound much like they do live, but the studio effect is marked: the sound is much cleaner and the lyrics much easier to hear than the live versions. I can't decide whether or not I noticed the studio production more because I have heard these songs performed live first, or whether Danny Horrid's engineering and production techniques stick out more than John Keane's work on previous albums.  

Early reactions from listeners range from enthusiastic acclaim to "it's okay." My own reaction tends more to the latter assessment, but I would add that I agree with those who qualify their judgment by saying that an "okay" VoL album is better than a lot of artists' best work. Best of all is to hear VoL play live.  

Though Slow Dark Train is not the blockbuster album that Blister Soul was, it has several good listenable songs, which earns it a rating of three and a half tocks.  

By Chris Parks 

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Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth