MJ Lenderman has had a busy two years. When I first saw him perform in Feb. 2022, he was playing in the loading dock of a bar in North Philadelphia to a crowd of, generously, a couple hundred people. Sharing the stage with three local Philly bands, Lendermen lent his guitar heroics to Florry’s rendition of “Dead Flowers” and watched Hooky and Snoozer alongside the beanie and cargo pants–clad masses with whom he blended in well enough not to draw any attention. He was promoting the forthcoming release of his album Boat Songs, via Philly’s own Dear Life records, itself home to 2nd Grade, Friendship, and other local indie stalwarts.
His performance was stellar. Armed with his muscular and distorted riffs, Xandy Chelmis’s saccharine pedal steel, and a friendly slacker rock vibe, Lenderman traversed an hour of career–spanning material, ranging from slowcore to hard rock, all with a rootsy twang courtesy of his subtle North Carolina inflection.
If this description doesn’t exactly help you paint a mental image of Lenderman’s sound, I don’t blame you. Most place his clearest influences among ‘90s alternative country, like Lucinda Williams and Drive–By Truckers—the latter of whom his band Wednesday opened for throughout their 2022 summer tour. But even these influences fail to encapsulate the oscillating speed and leisure, hostility and nonchalance, twang and swagger of Lenderman’s discography. Lenderman cites Sparklehorse, another bridge between the often–warring worlds of slowcore and country, as among his greatest influences. This much is evident on his self–titled debut and 2021 EP Knockin’, but watching Lenderman flex his way through Boat Songs on stage further muddied the portrait. Is this lanky, tattooed introvert Stephen Malkmus or Slash? And why, if he’s either of them, is there a pedal steel on stage?
When Lenderman walked off the loading dock’s meager stage, he asked the audience to check out his latest two singles, "Hangover Game" and "You Have Bought Yourself A Boat," as well as Boat Songs, the album they were soon to feature on. The tracks appealed to everything I loved about Lenderman’s performance: they were fun but not bland, twangy but not mawkish, and silly but not goofy. Lenderman’s unassuming presentation and lack of established industry support were inauspicious, but the music was great. And, as it would turn out, I wasn’t the only one to think so. Boat Songs was awarded a best new music designation from Pitchfork, and “Tastes Just Like It Costs” was named the week’s best new track. Paste, The Ringer, Stereogum, and The Alternative all named it among their top 15 albums of 2022, and Lenderman’s popularity skyrocketed. In the span of under two years, his meager hundreds had turned into over 60,000 at the Pitchfork Music Festival, which saw Lenderman share a stage with the likes of Snail Mail and Weyes Blood. Just a few months prior, less than a year after the release of Boat Songs, Wednesday had unveiled Rat Saw God, their latest project. This album, too, took off, raking in an average Metacritic score of 89/100, the eleventh–highest rated of the year thus far.
These contradictions are at the heart of Lenderman’s success. As the guitarist for Wednesday, fronted by his girlfriend and fellow Ashevillan Karly Hartzman, Lenderman remains true to the grunge formula of noise, distortion, and imprecision. With his solo work, he nimbly tiptoes across a desolate soundscape of somber instrumental murmuring. The latter is becoming less true with each new release, with Knockin’s title track being reprised with an arena–rock guitar solo on his latest single, and with Boat Songs featuring a handful of rockers that threw last winter’s crowd of loading dock hipsters nearly into mosh mode. But Lenderman’s four solo releases, alongside Wednesday’s five, present innumerable different visions of who MJ Lenderman is. All that is obvious is merely that he has a knack for emotionality, an overwhelming unpretentiousness, and a serious talent for songcraft.
And as Lenderman’s audiences have rapidly grown, so too have his responsibilities. He’s played 48 solo shows in the past year, as well as 67 with Wednesday, even going on multiple international tours. The most impressive part is that he retains the same charming, lively energy that he did in a chilly loading dock in his “second hometown” a couple of years ago when playing to crowds of triple the size for months on end.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Lenderman’s nascent success is his recent signing to ANTI– Records, former home of Sparklehorse, and contemporary home of Fleet Foxes, The Tallest Man On Earth, M. Ward, and others. His first release with ANTI– will be, fittingly, a live album, MJ Lenderman and the Wind (Live and Loose!), coming out on Nov. 17. Lenderman’s journey from his debut’s oppressive slowcore melancholy to his present–day slacker country barnburners has been swift, and his ascent to stardom has been too. This next release represents a major step in the process of the latter, and for those who want to get in on the ground floor of alternative music’s next big star, this may be your last chance. If the last two years are any indication, And The Wind (Live and Loose!) will surely represent yet another side to Lenderman—one that’s energetic, emphatic, and fun—and yet another step on his rapid journey from indie darling to rock star.