Since embarking on his solo career, erstwhile punk artist Jesse Malin has struggled to balance the residual elements of his hardcore and glam days with more conventional singer-songwriter tropes. While he’s had some occasional flashes of brilliance, especially on 2004’s The Heat, Malin hasn’t entirely found his footing. His latest, Love It to Life, is easily his most consistent set to date, with Malin demonstrating a greater degree of discipline in his arrangements and more attention to the construction of his songs.
Opener “Burning the Bowery” finds a young man attempting to live at a breakneck pace without losing sight of where he has come from. In its enormous chorus, the song explodes into a cacophony of squelchy electric guitars and rattling percussion, with the final notes of the refrain echoing well into each subsequent verse. Structurally, that makes for a shrewd production choice, giving “Bowery” the disorienting haze of a fugue state and reflecting Malin’s need for both forward momentum and self-discovery.
Life isn’t able to sustain the level of such a phenomenal opening track, but Malin does show a greater degree of quality control than he has on previous albums. The skuzzy “Black Boombox” channels some blistering punk ferocity as Malin pays tribute to some of his main influences, while “The Archer” subverts clichéd troubadour tropes with some cockeyed but still surprisingly romantic poetry. With just 10 songs, Life doesn’t give Malin much margin for error. Fortunately, he’s edited this collection well: Only “Disco Ghetto,” with some truly atrocious rhymes, isn’t up to par. There’s plenty of NYC-inspired bluster to be found here, but Malin also conveys some real vulnerability. It’s to his credit that he can deliver a line like “Catch my breath, a little death/I always feel sad after but I never let you know,” on “Lonely at Heart,” without it coming across as hopelessly emo.
Malin’s solo albums have often drawn comparisons to Ryan Adams, who, along with wife Mandy Moore, provides backing vocals as part of the St. Marks Social. Those comparisons aren’t unfounded, but Adams has never released an album as controlled or as catchy as Life. Malin’s solo career has always shown promise, but Life finally makes good on it.