MJ Lenderman: Boat Songs

When MJ Lenderman sings the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Perfect” on Wednesday’s recent cover record Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’em Up, he razes and rekindles the song with barely more than a slant in his voice. Billy Corgan tends to sing with electrified gravitas, as though life and death hung on every note. “Perfect” justifies the dramatics. It charts the distance between the glorified image of a relationship and the way two people actually move with each other through time. The grain of living weathers away the gloss. While taking lead on that cover—and in his solo work more broadly—the Ashville guitarist and singer-songwriter zeroes in on the fissures that appear in the weathering. His latest album, Boat Songs, holds up what he finds in the cracks, dusts it off, and lets it sparkle in the dusk light.

Boat Songs marks Lenderman’s first solo album recorded in a professional studio after two homespun releases: a 2019 self-titled debut and last year’s Ghost of Your Guitar Solo. The shift to higher fidelity doesn’t smooth out what makes his alt-country vignettes click. His loping, lackadaisical melodic phrasing, the way he ropes up guitar lines around tragicomic epigrams, and his repeated turns to bathos are all charged by the new punch of the production. He relays disarming insights into the fray of living with smiling, understated delivery; his songs often feel like a conversation with an old friend that suddenly goes deep, plunging down a level without losing any of its safety or warmth. By cranking up the luster around them, he highlights those minuscule faults where universes take root. Here’s an album where failure fertilizes the starting ground.

Across Boat Songs, Lenderman adopts the Gen X strategy of taking implements of power and exaggerating them to absurdity. His music bears the echoes of those 1990s songwriters who dragged amplification and distortion into the realm of sour comedy, who fuzzed out their guitars to near-static and played them with winking simplicity. In his fuzz-stacked sound, storied indie rock acts like Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill, and Sparklehorse mingle with alt-country fabulists like Songs: Ohia and Drive-By Truckers. He mixes Mark Linkous’ eye for beautiful minutiae with Jason Molina’s knack for mythological gravitas, and offsets them both with a warm, easy style that takes the bite out of the pain that rivets his songs. If throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the electric guitar served as a show of dominance and virtuosity in mainstream rock, that ’90s crop of indie musicians found a way to wield it with a sardonic edge: letting the riffs sag a little, turning them up until they sounded like shit, and drawling over the top. If your goal isn’t just to be the most impressive thing in the room, there’s more space to dig around for what you’d otherwise be drowning out.

Updated: May 7, 2022 — 11:00 am