From one glance at its cover, Mal Blum’s new album “Pity Boy” appears to be the quintessential Blum album fans have been waiting for. Two figures sit with blankets draped over their heads like ghost costumes without eyeholes. Melting cake, domestic setting, and simple colors create a scene familiar to Blum’s listeners. Much of Blum’s work revolves around break-ups, uncomfortable social situations, and cyclical patterns of self-destructive behavior, tackling themes of anxiety and isolation with a tone of heartfelt sincerity. Blum’s aesthetic of sad butch vulnerability earned them a devoted fanbase of largely queer and counterculture youth. After years of putting out their own work, Blum signed onto Don Giovanni records in 2014, and in 2018, toured with the live show of “Welcome to Nightvale,” an eerily comedic podcast with a cult following perfect for Blum’s clever lyrics and DIY aesthetic. Recently, Blum’s audience has grown even further. “Pity Boy” is their first Billboard-charting record, highlighting Blum’s emergence into today’s punk cannon.
The new album marks a shift for Blum, trading the folk feeling of their earlier work for a solid punk rock sound. The opening song, “Things Still Left to Say,” highlights this shift in tone, kicking off the album with an upbeat tempo and a heavy emphasis on the electric guitar. Though “Things Still Left to Say” is specifically about being closeted, it more generally sets up the album to be heard in the thematic context of shedding new light on past experiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in lyrics that speak directly to the struggle of establishing boundaries in relationships with others; the choruses of “Not My Job” and “I Don’t Want To” seem to boil over with the frustration lurking beneath the surface of many of Blum’s previous narratives. Likewise, “Did You Get What You Wanted” and “Well, Fuck” channel a confident anger that feels more focused than the winding emotional arcs of Blum’s earlier hits.
However, amid the direct, assertive tone of these songs, Blum still nestles numbers that breathe with quiet vulnerability. “Black Coffee,” the only solo track on the album, features soft guitar and lyrics that gently discuss heartbreak as a continuous and uncertain process — the line “Some words I’ll never try to say” directly carves space for complexity within the unfinished-business attitude set by “Things Still Left To Say.” “Salt Flats” is reminiscent of a lullaby, with its steady, calming rhythm and lines like “You rub salt in my wounds / Then you lick it away” that blend a whimsical sense of wordplay with serious content.
The success of the album lies in its emotional range, and no song highlights this dialogue between tough anger and quiet vulnerability as well as “See Me.” While the title is phrased as an imperative, the chorus repeats the same words over and over within the question “Why can’t they see me?” followed by the assertion “I’m right here.” The tone of the question changes as the song switches between lighter background instrumentals and a heavy punk rock beat in an instant. Likewise, after the self-assured forward momentum of “Gotta Go,” the album’s final song,“Maybe I’ll Wait,” presents a compelling thematic contrast with its careful, reflective lyrics.
While the songs on “Pity Boy” are filled with emotional complexity, many of them are also — to put it simply — bops. Since the album’s release, I’ve continually found myself rocking out to “I Don’t Want To” in front of the bathroom mirror or suddenly itching to dance whenever “Odds” plays on my Spotify shuffle on the train.
On “Pity Boy,” Blum expands their musical range to create a punk rock album that harnesses the strengths of their previous work. Rolling with this new energy, Blum still manages to capture a deep sense of intimacy in their raw voice and direct lyrics. Whatever “things still left to say” Blum might have, we’re listening.
— Staff Writer Marie A. Ungar can be reached at email@example.com