Pixar, Catholic shame, and urine-drinking podcast bros: the mixed-up rock of MJ Lenderman

Estimated read time 7 min read

The world of Manning Fireworks, the fourth album by North Carolina-based guitarist and songwriter MJ Lenderman, is largely populated by sad sacks and losers: men of all stripes whose common features include drinking to excess, an inability to commit and, in general, a tendency to let down every woman they come into contact with.

This archetype has become a calling-card subject for Lenderman, a 25-year-old shredder who writes male characters with a particularly exacting, withering eye. One widely shared meme about his new single She’s Leaving You, framed like a New York Times op-ed, asks “Is the Cure to Male Loneliness MJ Lenderman?”; another reads “Made the fish I just caught watch She’s Leaving You by MJ Lenderman.”

“I do notice [writing about masculinity] is a pattern with the songs – I think it’s just one thing, maybe, that I can speak to,” says Lenderman, video-calling from underneath a tree at producer Brad Cook’s studio in Durham, North Carolina. Inspired by artists like the Coen Brothers, director Todd Solondz and famed writer Harry Crews – all of whom make their best work when exploring the depths of human misery – Lenderman’s songs are often bitterly funny or abrasively poignant. Wristwatch ends with a showboating man observing that his fancy watch serves as a symbol of his own loneliness; On My Knees opens with the line: “Burdened by those wet dreams / Of people having fun.”

The online phrase “dudes rock”, used as a cheery celebration or eye-roll at men doing men stuff, is often attached to his music (hence the fishing memes). But, he says, “I don’t think all my songs are necessarily about dudes – I don’t really resonate with whatever ‘dudes rock’ is,” bringing up the association before I can even mention it. “I don’t want the music to come across like it’s not inclusive to everybody – like somebody who’s not a dude.”

Excitement around Manning Fireworks has been bolstered by a huge couple of years for Lenderman. His 2022 record Boat Songs was named one of the best of that year by a swathe of publications, with the Guardian’s Laura Snapes saying it sounded like “Neil Young burning up a garage or Jason Molina beholding the world from a ranch”; earlier this year, he sang and played guitar on Tigers Blood, the acclaimed sixth album by indie-country musician Waxahatchee.

MJ Lenderman.View image in fullscreen

In between, he has continued to play with Wednesday, the band led by his ex-girlfriend Karly Hartzman, whose 2023 album Rat Saw God was named best of the year by Stereogum. Lenderman, stoic behind wraparound sunglasses, seems uninterested in being an indie industry Next Big Thing – “visibility and stuff, that’s not really something I’ve been after” – but says that “playing shows for people who want to see us play, I’ll take that over playing to no one. I would define success for myself as being able to not have to do anything but music, and be able to keep making it.”

Born Mark Jacob Lenderman in the verdant North Carolina city of Asheville – known for its strong music and arts culture – Lenderman grew up second-youngest of four, and the only boy. Growing up, he loved music and basketball, but found that he wasn’t competitive enough for the latter pursuit; the abundance of sports references on Boat Songs might scan as a concession to his one-season pursuit of high school basketball, but he says he “never intended to be a sports guy,” and those references have largely been excised from Manning Fireworks.

The album does still mine his childhood for allusions, though. On 10-minute closer Bark at the Moon, he sings about playing the titular Ozzy track on Guitar Hero; Rudolph nods to Lightning McQueen, the hot-headed red sports car from the Pixar film Cars. (“My dad asked me who that was, and I had to explain it was an animated car,” he says drily.)

For those who grew up in the late-90s and 2000s, Manning Fireworks is rich with these kinds of sly, recognisable interjections. “I think there’s something generational there – that hopefully isn’t so over the top that older people can’t resonate with it – and I think that’s maybe the most interesting part of the music,” he says. Musically, Manning Fireworks draws lines between the driving powerpop of Teenage Fanclub, the yearning hooks of REM and the muscular country-rock of Drive-By Truckers – all very 90s references – and Lenderman says he wants to subtly update that universe for the 2020s. “I’m making guitar music – it’s not like that’s never been done before – and then just trying to write songs with my own vocabulary, or hopefully one that at least people our age understand.”

Those generational references influence Lenderman’s music in more subtle ways. Some of his writing about facile machismo – the aforementioned portrait of a buffoon on Wristwatch, for example, or the guy on Manning Fireworks who’s “sneakin’ backstage to hound the girls in the circus” – was inspired by manosphere-adjacent influencers, “these podcasts that, especially if you’re a guy, are shoved in your face: the dumbest fucking dudes talking to each other,” he says. Part of the reason he no longer runs his own Instagram is that he found that he “could sink four hours a day” into watching characters like Will Blunderfield, an alternative health influencer-slash-musician who drinks his own urine and “is like, always naked. You can only see so much of that until it makes you sick,” he says.

Lenderman also drew from his Catholic upbringing on Manning Fireworks; he says the fact that so many of his songs tap into a visceral sense of shame and embarrassment is “the Catholic lingering in me”. The record’s title track zeroes in on a figure who uses his religion to pick up women, which Lenderman says was inspired by those who weaponise their worship as a “performative act”. While Lenderman says “I tend not to surround myself with people like that,” he saw “a good bit of it” growing up in the south. “I had certain friends in middle school who had batshit crazy Republican parents that were like that,” he says. He recalls a lot of the religion he was surrounded by as a child as feeling fairly hypocritical; one Sunday as a child, a friend’s family took him to the Rock Church, which was full of “hip young people doing church services at a rock club, but still felt homophobic and all that stuff. Growing up, my family and most of our friends were all pretty liberal, and even within the church it was still split politically, somehow.”

All these references – drawn from childhood memories, dank algorithm holes, films and TV – coalesce into a funny, sad and thrillingly real album that firmly cements Lenderman as a generationally talented songwriter. Far from being dude-centric, Manning Fireworks’ sad sack anthems tap into something devastatingly, purely human. “When you’re observing someone at their lowest, certain truths come out,” he says. “Seeing people at their rawest, it’s easier to get in there and illuminate things about being alive.”

  • Manning Fireworks is released on Anti on 6 September

Source: theguardian.com

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