Sunset Kids: Jesse Malin's American Journey

By Jerrod Bohn

Jesse Malin knows the way to truly connect with one’s audience is through concrete imagery and a hummable hook. Sunset Kids (2019), his eighth studio album, is all about making music a co-authoring experience between artist and listener.

Rather than have big names play bit parts on Sunset Kids, Malin invites his bandmates and friends to be full participants in the songwriting. The lyrics to “Dead On,” co-written by Lucinda Williams (who, along with her husband, Tom Overby, produced the album) epitomize this collective creative spirit. Malin co-wrote the gritty, raucous riff with his bandmate, guitarist Derek Cruz. After penning the lyrics, he handed them off to Williams, who put her own raunchy spin on them. What results is a foot-stomping duet full of barroom blues and punk rock swagger.

This equal-partners approach is evident throughout Malin's latest LP. “Strangers and Thieves” pairs Malin with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, who supplied many of the song’s lyrics. Reflecting on his time “growing up being a punk in the Bay area,” Armstrong weaves a wistful reminisce of a misfit youth. The chorus shimmers through its sunshiny California guitar jangle as Malin and Armstrong harmonize to declare, “I’ve been thinking about you lately / I’m lost and I’m lonely in the tenements of life.” Unlike that stereotypical, isolated singer/songwriter who indulges in being a loner, Malin is all about connection. Within the context of the song’s entirety, the line, “I’ve never really had a family,” is somewhat ironic. While biological family may have never been idyllic, stable, or even present, the friendships formed through the musical scene become kin. "Strangers and Thieves" is about reaching out for human companionship rather than retreating.

Jesse Malin and Sunset Kids co-producer Lucinda Williams

Many immature poets mistakenly assume the best way to reach an outside reader is through vague, general description; however, vivid, significant details are far better at evoking emotion. In “Room 13, Malin transports listeners into a shoddy hotel room in a town so dead that “all the liquor stores are closed.” With the TV channels blurring together and without substances to numb the pain, there’s nothing to keep the thoughts of past and current lovers, or more specifically the failures accompanying them, from invading. Rather than tell listeners how the narrator is feeling, Malin shows through his choice of images. Seemingly insignificant observations, like the “paper thin walls” or the phone going dead during an emotionally removed chat with someone far away, serve as the authenticating details that position listeners in the room as the speaker. The vivid words supply the specifics that allow listeners to confront human loneliness. “Room 13” is a concrete place with enough elasticity to hold everyone.

While Malin populates his work with the New York pavement he’s walked his whole life, there’s a quality to Malin’s words that moves the listener beyond just baring witness. He isn’t just an “on the corner of Bowery and Bond” reporter; he’s the physics-defying machine that is placing you there. Moreover, Malin takes his fans on a road trip across the states. His songs go beyond Queens or Brooklyn; they also pound tall boys in Texas juke joints, rust in dilapidated Midwest towns, and smolder on a tropical beaches.

Sunset Kids is Jesse Malin at his very best. With the help of “lyric doctor” Lucinda Williams, Malin laid down a record that can land with just about anyone. Malin straddles several genres – country, punk, blues, to name a few – that he approaches with a pop sensibility. Each track, including the slow burning “Friends in Florida,” will have your head bobbing, hips swaying, or foot tapping along. Rather than shroud himself in aloofness and mystery, Malin strives to forge an authentic personality and a genuine relationship with his fans. He refers to music as “an interactive sport” that “tells you you’re not alone.” Moreover, he sees the art as, at once, acknowledging and celebrating difference while also “taking everybody in.” No matter who you are or where you might be listening, Jesse Malin is inviting you to accompany him on an American journey.