Back for the Attack
U2 and Quiet Company Return From Exile

This is the first of two columns this week. The other, which you can get to via the archive, is my long ramble about the Watchmen movie. To sum up: it could have been a lot better, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse. I’m a pretty happy geek right now.

This one, however, is about music. We’re mere weeks away from a flood of new tunes that won’t let up until summer’s over, at least – I’d have to write two columns every week to keep up with everything. (I won’t, of course, so I’m bound to miss some things.) Expect to see reviews of new records by the Decemberists, Ace Enders, Indigo Girls, Mastodon, The Wishing Tree, Prince, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Queensryche (how can I not review this craptasterpiece?), Ben Folds, Pet Shop Boys, Jars of Clay, Tinted Windows, Great Northern, Conor Oberst and Green Day. Anything else I get to is gravy.

Whew! Onward!

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I’ve been living with the new U2 album, No Line on the Horizon, for a few weeks now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my copy is defective.

I’d like to borrow David Fricke’s copy – his seems to be in perfect working order, judging by his five-star review in Rolling Stone. Mine, however, remains a confusing, difficult listen, no matter how many times I plow through it. I’ve been waiting for this album to click, to finally reveal itself to me, but after weeks of listening, first to a downloaded copy and then to the real thing, I’m afraid it just isn’t going to happen.

I’ve never had such a complex reaction to a U2 album before. Ordinarily, my first impression remains my enduring one – The Unforgettable Fire was a favorite early on, and has remained one, while Zooropa rubbed me wrong the first time, and never grew on me. The only exception has been Achtung Baby, which struck me as an odd, off-kilter little record my first time through, and soon blossomed, taking its place in the pantheon pretty quickly. I’m hoping the same will happen with No Line on the Horizon, though I doubt it.

The thing is, I’m an old-school U2 fan. Critics have turned on their last two albums, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, for being U2 by the numbers. I completely disagree. I think they signified a return of creative fire after a decade in the wilderness. I’m especially fond of Atomic Bomb because of its focus – it’s four guys in a room, playing their hearts out. The songs are loud and massive, and they have that reach-for-the-sky U2 flavor, but they’re much more down-to-earth and gritty than anything since the early days.

A band this restless isn’t going to stay in one comfortable place for very long, though. No Line on the Horizon is the inevitable transitional album, Bono and the lads indulging their experimental streak again. I’ve always admired U2’s willingness to follow those impulses, even if they lead straight off a cliff. But I’ve never particularly liked listening to the end products. Zooropa and Pop, perhaps the most experimental records they’ve made, occupy the bottom two slots in my U2 hierarchy.

So already I was bracing myself for No Line, an album crafted over several sessions, with numerous producers. In the end, they whittled down the dream team to alumni Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, with a little help from Will-I-Am. But the finished album sounds like what it is – a confused hodgepodge of differing tones and intentions. It’s a baffling listen the first time through, and many of the head-scratching moments don’t coalesce on repeated listens.

Take “Magnificent,” a song I really wish I could like more than I do. U2 has built a career out of making the most of one riff, and they do it again here – “Magnificent” is constructed entirely on one pretty awesome guitar lick. But this song should be a joyous explosion, and it’s oddly muted. It’s produced within an inch of its life, with string sections and keyboards jockeying for room. Every time Larry Mullen goes into one of those endless snare drum fills, the song’s momentum stops dead. This will probably be great live, but it’s far too subdued here.

Speaking of momentum-killers, there’s “Moment of Surrender,” a seven-minute faux-gospel drone that drags the album down at track three. It’s not much of a song, but I expect the idea was to create cavernous space for Bono to fill. The Edge takes one of his few guitar breaks around the six-minute mark, but it’s so reserved it’s like it barely happens. The electronic drum beat never changes, the song never builds, it just goes on and on.

But I can see what they were going for, even if they fell short. With “Unknown Caller,” the six-minute meander that follows, I can’t even figure out what they wanted it to be. You get chiming guitars, you get keyboards, you get gang vocals urging you to “force quit and move to trash,” and the whole thing goes absolutely nowhere. Similarly, “Fez-Being Born” is like a dial tone. It drones on for five minutes without actually doing a damn thing.

It’s not all bad news. I can think of few things that scare me more than a U2 song with a title like “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” but it’s actually not that bad. At least it has a good chorus, and holds together as a sweet little ditty. “Get On Your Boots” is a mess, but its follow-up, “Stand Up Comedy,” really works, even after a dozen listens. It’s no coincidence that it’s one of the few songs here that sounds like it was jammed out live, and it has Bono’s best line this time out: “Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas.”

Speaking of Bono, I am convinced the rest of the band needs to corner him, rip his first draft lyrics out of his hands and throw them on the fire. Even though I’m not fond of the results, it’s clear the music on this album was labored over. The lyrics, on the other hand, sound like they were scrawled onto bar napkins ten minutes before Eno hit the record button. The record kicks off with its title track, a mid-tempo tunnel of sound – you won’t be able to tell what noises were made with guitars, basses and synths, but Mullen’s powerhouse drumming holds the whole thing together. But what does Bono sing on top of this? Here are the honest-to-God opening lyrics:

“I know a girl who’s like the sea, I watch her changing every day for me, oh yeah/One day she’s still, the next she swells, you can hear the universe in her sea shells…”

Seriously. You can hear the universe in her sea shells. It gets worse. “Moment of Surrender” is about having a religious epiphany while using the ATM (or “ATM machine,” as Bono redundantly puts it). The narrator of “Unknown Caller” wants you to “cease to speak, so that I may speak, shush now” and “restart and reboot yourself.” All of “Get On Your Boots” is embarrassing. He hits the mark a few times, particularly on the superior second half – “White as Snow,” despite borrowing its melody from “O Come, O Come Emanuel,” is a haunting tale of a wounded soldier in Afghanistan. But mainly, the lyric man blows it.

The best song on the album is buried at track 10. “Breathe” is reminiscent of “Trip Through Your Wires,” but rowdier and funnier: “Coming from a long line of traveling salesmen on my mother’s side, I wasn’t just going to buy anyone’s cockatoo,” Bono smirks at one point. But this song moves – it has a terrific melody, and carries it along for its full five minutes. Yeah, there’s an unnecessary string section, but this is the one song here that pulses with life. “Cedars of Lebanon” closes the proceedings on a hushed, almost sinister note, and I’ve grown to quite like this one, too. “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cause they will define you,” Bono sing-speaks, and as the music melts away, he closes with, “They’re gonna last with you longer than your friends.”

But despite brief flashes, No Line on the Horizon is less than the sum of its parts. About half of it still leaves me baffled, even after more than a dozen spins, and the other half doesn’t hold a candle to the best songs from the last two records. Worst of all, that creative fire so prevalent on those last two albums is in short supply on this one. This is a band in dire need of some scaling back. I would like to hear what they come up with given only three months, a live room and a bunch of microphones. No Line on the Horizon is overcooked, yet lukewarm, a confusing collection of sounds that never takes flight. Like its title, it makes less sense the more you consider it.

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And now for something completely better.

Three years ago, Austin songwriter Taylor Muse appeared out of nowhere, releasing a hell of a debut album, Shine Honesty, under the name Quiet Company. I don’t regularly listen to a lot of the records I bought in 2006, but Shine Honesty still gets a lot of spins to this day. The reason is Muse’s songs – they are dynamic and bold and melodic, and they reveal more little pleasures each time you hear them. The album was like a sustained fanfare, announcing the arrival of a major talent.

I wanted more right away, but it took three years for Muse and his collaborators to put together Quiet Company’s second album, graced with the glorious title Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon. In those three years, Muse has left Northern Records and struck out on his own – the new QuietCo album is a self-released affair. Which means it will probably reach fewer people than even the debut album did, unless word gets around. Well, I’m about to do my part, because this album is excellent – it’s not as immediate as Shine Honesty, but with repeated listens, it reveals itself as a gem, better in many respects than the band’s terrific first effort. Put simply, you should buy this, and you should buy it now.

On Shine Honesty, Muse overdubbed himself again and again, achieving these dramatic epics that belied his budget. On Everyone You Love, he’s gone even bigger. The sound is somehow more homespun and ragged, but the songs are more confident, more layered. It’s a more complete album, a fuller experience. New band member Thomas Blank, who plays guitars, pianos, organs and other things, helps flesh these tunes out, and there are a host of guests this time. It sounds more like a band effort than the one-man show Muse gave us last time.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the songwriting. Taylor Muse remains a singular talent – there are 15 songs on this thing, and every single one packs a melodic punch. Even the most typical of these tunes, the Wilco-esque “Golden (Like the State),” goes places you won’t expect, and when Muse really builds up a head of steam, his songs unfold and flower and evolve, rarely ending up where they began. “Seal My Fate” begins with four chords on a loping acoustic guitar, but check out where it goes – the delightful sunshine pop chorus is fantastic.

Highlights? Okay. The deliriously-titled “It’s Better to Spend Money Like There’s No Tomorrow Than Spend Tonight Like There’s No Money” gallops to life with an electric piano figure and a quick-quick drumbeat, and its energy never flags: “You better stop and smell the roses, you better love the life you live,” Muse sings, and the joyous music backs him up perfectly. “Our Sun is Always Rising” is one of my favorites. It begins with a simple piano sketch, guitars and drums crashing in out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly. But it evolves into an epic pop wonderland worthy of the Polyphonic Spree.

“Red and Gold” is the album’s most beautiful moment, Muse stepping into Fleet Foxes territory for a few minutes. A fragile acoustic guitar, some sweet harmonies, and a great little melody – what else do you need? Oh, right, thoughtful lyrics, which Muse also provides in spades: “Take your time discussing all your needs, because every road will end up at the sea,” he sings.

Some of these songs are straight diary entry, some (like the sweet “Congratulations Seth and Kara”) are letters to specific people. But every one of these lyrics is considered and well-written – Bono should take notes. Muse wrestles with God, just like Bono does, but Muse’s struggles somehow seem more real, less concerned with an audience. He argues scriptures with his brother in “Seth and Kara,” and in “The Beginning of Everything at the End of the World,” he declares that modern religion “leaves me feeling cold, leaves me feeling faithless, because our scars both old and new, they never seem to shame us.”

And just like last time, Muse really pulls out the stops at record’s end. He’s already asked you to listen to 45 minutes of relatively complex pop by the time you get to “How to Fake Like You are Nice and Caring,” a seven-minute excursion into awesome, but you won’t mind. The title is a reference to Magnolia, and the song is a doubt-filled excoriation of this greedy world. Once it gets going, it’s like a roller coaster, zipping through different movements and melodies with graceful ease.

He gets no less epic with “On Modern Men,” another one that starts slow and builds relentlessly, Sufjan Stevens style, into a wall of sound. “They want you to take a bow, everybody here’s allowed one, so make it good, son,” Muse sings, effectively bringing the album to a close. Sweet coda “Congratulations April and Lucas” is like a parting gift: “I’m gonna count my blessings, I’m gonna count my sacred things…” Despite the noisy denouement, it’s a low-key, optimistic finish to an album that has laid bare its author’s soul, and by the end, you feel Muse has earned his rest.

I didn’t know what to expect from a second Quiet Company album, and in some ways, I feared the first one may have been a fluke. In retrospect, though, I’m not surprised that Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon is this good. This is the sound of Taylor Muse coming into his own, and what a sound that is. I only wish more people would get to hear it.

So here’s the deal. You can hear a bunch of songs from the new record here. If you like it, you can buy it here. Last time, I favorably compared Taylor Muse to Paul Simon, and this time, I’ve given his record a better review than U2’s. That should tell you something. Click over and check it out. You won’t regret it.

Next week, well, I’m spoiled for choice. Neko Case? Soundtrack of Our Lives? Chris Cornell? Cursive? Buddy and Julie Miller? Could be any of them. Join me in seven days to find out.

See you in line Tuesday morning.