“It’s great to be back in Brooklyn,” Jesse Malin deadpanned onstage at the Nashville outpost of Brooklyn Bowl, the bowling-alley-meets-concert-venue he was playing earlier this week as part of the annual Americana Music Festival. Malin, synonymous with New York’s Lower East Side, has been an increasingly regular presence in Nashville. His friend Lucinda Williams lives here now and he’s been down to check on her progress as she recovers from a stroke she suffered last year.
Malin bonded with the Americana poet and her husband Tom Overby when the couple produced his 2019 album Sunset Kids. A collection of personal songs that touched on the death of his father and his own bouts of loneliness and despair, the record saw Malin — who came of age as the lead screamer of the hardcore band Heart Attack in 1981 — completing his evolution into a lyrically focused Americana artist. Malin doesn’t scream as much these days, choosing instead to allow his songwriting, at once literary and full of pop-culture allusions, to convey and soothe his still raging angst.
On his new double album Sad and Beautiful World, out on Steven Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records, Malin revels in references both niche and universal. He shouts out the fictional gangster Tony Montana and the very real punk Johnny Thunders at one moment and namechecks Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain the next. The LP title itself is a nod to a line of dialogue in a Jim Jarmusch film, 1986’s Down by Law starring Tom Waits. “A sad film with a happy ending / are they looking out for you and me?” he sings in the somber yet propulsive track “Before You Go.”
“Down by Law is one of my favorites,” Malin told Rolling Stone over pizza at an outdoor beer garden earlier this summer, during yet another trip to Nashville. “Tom Waits gets thrown out of Ellen Barkin’s house. He’s a DJ and they break up, and she throws all his records out the window and says, ‘You’re a shitty DJ.’ He leaves and he’s sitting in a gas station in Louisiana somewhere, drinking, and Roberto Benigni comes by and says in his broken English, ‘It’s a sad and beautiful world.’ I wrote it down because it just seemed fitting.”
But Malin is no sad sack. His entire brand is built on the idea of “Positive Mental Attitude,” which D.C. reggae punks Bad Brains summed up as “P.M.A.” in the song “Attitude” on their seminal 1982 debut — released, coincidentally, around the same time that an impressionable 13-year-old Malin was fronting Heart Attack. In almost any conversation with him, he’ll mention P.M.A. at least once.
“It’s projecting that P.M.A. into a tough time,” he says of the Sad and Beautiful World song “State of the Art,” with its juxtaposed lyrics about finding “a silver lining as the thunder rolls.” For the track “Todd Youth,” an eponymous tribute to Malin’s former guitarist who died in 2018, he went directly to the source and enlisted Bad Brains’ singer H.R. to add a spoken-word prayer of positive vibes to the production. “That song is about the last night of an unsung musician, told through his eyes as he OD’s in a West Hollywood apartment building,” Malin says.
While Sunset Kids was cut in L.A. with the input of Williams and Overby, Sad and Beautiful World was conceived closer to home at Flux Studios in the East Village, just a few steps from Malin’s apartment. With his longtime guitarist Derek Cruz and engineer Geoff Sanoff producing and no looming deadline because of the pandemic, Malin was free to roam. He revisited songs he wrote for Sunset Kids, indulged a nagging desire to cover Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You,” and wrote notebooks full of new material. When it came time to put it all together, a double album made the most sense.
“We were looking at some of our favorite bands like the Clash. They released London Calling and, it’s like, wow, what are you going to do next year? And Sandinista came out! They put out three records after a double just a year later,” he says.
Sad and Beautiful World is split into two themes — one disc is a collection of more rootsy fare, the other leans toward rock, with traces of Malin’s punk and hardcore past life. All of it is shot through with a distinct sense of transformation.
“The album is about finding peace somewhere, somehow,” Malin says, “and seeing the beauty in the darkness.” He’s troubled by the divisiveness he sees, not just in U.S. politics but in his own artist circle. “What feels even crazier in this world and in this country is that it’s not that the left and the right don’t agree, but the people in our community — the artists, the musicians, the outsiders — are not on the same page. That’s scary and feels really disheartening.”
But Malin, and his ever-present P.M.A., remains confident that we’ll find a way through. Sad and Beautiful World then is a journey — from confusion and shadows into clarity and light. The album opens with “Greener Pastures,” a lonesome ballad about waking up in the morning in a strange place (in this case, Dallas, Texas) and struggling to find motivation, and ends with “Saint Christopher,” which illuminates the path forward. “I packed up all my troubles and I got on a train / I had my Saint Christopher on a silver chain,” it begins.
“That songs says we are all so similar, everywhere as humans,” Malin says. “We’re all inhabiting this same little planet.”
It’s a message the performer drives home at every one of his concerts, often up close and personal with his audience: His one must-have on tour is a microphone with an extralong cord. At Brooklyn Bowl this week, he hopped offstage and waded deep into the floor, preaching to the few people who braved a torrential rainstorm and the lingering fear of a virus to commune.
“It’s about making the most of these moments right now,” Malin told the fans as his band played behind him. “Be here now, baby.”