Mal Blum | courtesy of the artist
Mal Blum works toward optimism on new album Pity Boy
On Pity Boy, New York’s Mal Blum pushes their typical tender and introspective songwriting into hard rock and pop punk territory with powerful results. The new album, which came out last Friday on Don Giovanni Records, is full of robust instrumental arrangements that help the singer-songwriter point their songs toward a nuanced sense of optimism and acceptance. Joy is Blum’s rational goal.
Abundant electric guitar riffs and chewy basslines make Blum’s seventh full-length perhaps their loudest to date — their first was 2007’s The Malblum Album and their most recent was 2015’s You Look A Lot Like Me, produced by Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females. Blum recorded Pity Boy with engineer Joe Reinhart of Hop Along at Philadelphia’s Headroom Studios with the backing of Audrey Zee Whitesides on guitar, Barrett Lindgren on bass, and Ricardo Lagomasino on drums. The group, affectionately called “The Blums,” help bring Blum’s personal songs to life with the inspiring ardor of pop punk’s best.
As a lyricist, Blum tackles a number of heavy subjects with great care, keenly aware that the most everyday struggles are sometimes also the most grave. Alienation, invisibility and self-doubt appear and reappear throughout the album; Blum centers the idea of “want” on the two consecutive tracks “Did You Get What You Wanted” and “I Don’t Want To.” A press release on Blum’s website suggests, “It’s impactful to listen to these songs through a transgender lens — and some of the songs do touch on Blum’s experience coming out as transgender […] but truthfully, all these songs offer crashes of loneliness and sparks of euphoric recognition that will feel familiar to many surviving in 2019.” The singer explains, “Honestly, I think it was just, like, the next chapter of my therapy session. […] The last record was like, ‘Oh, okay, for the first time I’ve admitted to myself that I am struggling in a clinical sense.’ But after that, you have to take all that self-examination to the next step, which is: ‘Why do I do the things I do? What are these cycles in my life that are or are not helping me?’ That’s the place that I was in when I wrote almost all of these songs.”
The album’s lyrics are full of questions, for the self and for others, beginning in the opening track “Things Still Left To Say.” “Should I explain myself? / I’d rather read the dictionary” Blum worries, before their worries grow even more immediate. “Why does everybody else / Feel closer to me than I can feel to them / Though my reticence was necessary / Do you really know me well? / Do you think that we are friends? / Are we friends?”
“See Me” finds Blum at their most vulnerable, torn by competing desires for visibility and for refuge. “I wish that I would fade away / But that don’t last long / Wait til tomorrow, it will be gone” they admit in the bridge, before returning to the refrain, asking again and again, “Why can’t they see me? Why can’t they see me? Why can’t they see me? / When I’m right here.” “See Me” is also one of Pity Boy‘s fastest cuts, and features some of its most memorable guitar shredding — immediately afterward, Blum suggests getting “high at the Waffle House” on “Odds.” Blum also makes sure to leave room on the album for several moments of quieter reflection, including on the tender solo cut “Black Coffee” and on the outstanding ballad “Salt Flats,” which eventually builds to a scream and even more guitar shredding.
One of the album’s last tracks and one of its most thought-provoking is “Well, Fuck,” on which Blum meets the limits of self-analysis and psychologizing their relationships.” At a certain point, they find they have to admit how many of their different everyday frustrations are “all the same to me.” “Call it one big family / But families are fucked up all the same,” and “You have a god, you have a boss / No matter what you call it / It’s all the same.” When everything is fucked, Blum decides to take a practical approach to every day, concluding, “I don’t wish to be overthinking this.” By the end of the album, this may be one of the most applicable lessons the songwriter offers. Just be.