So I had a plan for this week.
I’ve bought three so-called comeback records in the past week or so, and I was planning to review all of them, and question whether their authors should have tried to come back at all. I was varying shades of disappointed in all three, most particularly the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even though I dislike writing pans of mediocre albums, I was ready to do it. If I could keep one person from buying the Chili Peppers disc, it would be worth it.
But all that’s changed now. You see, I just got a pre-release download of the new Quiet Company album, We Are All Where We Belong. It comes out October 4, but the band was gracious enough to send me the music early, and even though I much prefer to listen to new stuff (particularly new stuff I’m jazzed about) on CD, I can’t wait. So I’m going to hit play on this 64-minute monster, and I’m going to write down my thoughts as it unspools.
This is a dangerous way to do things – what if I hate it? – but I expect this’ll be one of those cases where I just keep writing down superlatives. Quiet Company has been one of my favorite modern bands since their first record, Shine Honesty, in 2006. Their secret weapon really isn’t a secret: in frontman Taylor Muse, they have one of the most exciting songwriters I have encountered in many years. Muse songs rarely let me down, and on the strength of them, I named QuietCo’s second record, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon, the second-best album of 2009. (Behind the Decemberists’ masterpiece, The Hazards of Love.)
I’ve heard pieces of this new album, and liked what I’ve heard, but I’m excited to hear the whole thing in its intended order. In fact, I’m so excited that I’m just going to shut up and play it, right after I tell you this: you can hear lots of Quiet Company music for free here, and order the new album here.
OK, here we go. We Are All Where We Belong.
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Track one, “The Confessor (You Could Exist Without It),” starts quietly, with an organ and what sounds like a zither, and Muse’s tender voice. “I don’t wanna waste my life…” He’s already tackling what I expect will be the album’s big theme – this is Muse’s Curse Your Branches, his breakup album with God. Hang on, the song has just completely changed, slipping into a Beatlesque bounce, and then exploding into a full-band, horn-driven bloom. The above lyric ends with “…thinking about the afterlife”: we’re absolutely going to explore this theme further.
A little bit of noise, and we’re in the single, “You, Me and the Boatman (Truth Is, I’ve Been Thirsty My Whole Life).” (Yes, every song has one of these outrageous, awesome parentheticals.) I’ve heard this one 20 times, and I still love it. The horns are back, and they’re wonderful, Muse picking up another pet theme of his: “You and me, our love is bigger than most everything,” he sings, following it up with, “Let’s live to love and love to live.” If you had any doubt that this was going to be a record about being happier on earth than in heaven, these first two tracks should dispel that. This song is great.
And then we’re into the first of a two-part epic, “Preaching to the Choir Invisible.” Part one, subtitled “What Do You Think Happens When We Die,” begins with acoustic guitars and drum clicks, and more of those wonderful horns. “I believed that shit for so long,” Muse sings after a verse about hell, and finally concludes, “There’s probably nothing more than this.” Meanwhile, this song shifts form every few seconds underneath him, going huge and then pulling back, and then building up again. The song hits its climax as Muse shouts out the title phrase of the album. I’ve been following this guy for years, and this is the best song I’ve ever heard from him – it’s epic in all the best ways, melodic and memorable, and honest as a punch in the gut. It sounds like it could the last song on the record, with its drums-and-choir ending.
Part two of “Choir Invisible,” by the way, resides at track 12. We’ll get there in a bit. Track four is called “Set Your Monster Free (My New Year’s Resolution is to Cope With My Morality),” a title that calls back to two previous QuietCo tunes. It’s delicate, acoustic guitars and pianos, Muse again singing about the “beautiful lies” of religion. This one seems to be sung directly to Muse’s young daughter, Harper, and sounds like a lullaby. “You don’t have to waste your time holding on to beautiful lies…” It’s simple, but nice, building up to a two-chord, full-band coda. I get the sense these horns are here for the long haul, and that’s a good thing.
I’ve heard track five, “We Went to the Renaissance Faire (All Our Friends Were There),” but after “Set Your Monster Free,” its fuzzy eruption is delightfully jarring. It’s frenetic, like a Foo Fighters song, but better. “Love me with no reservations,” he sings to his wife, “and I promise I’ll be good, because you are my salvation…” We’re definitely dealing with an album-length theme here, all of Muse’s preoccupations tied together in a bow. Salvation is other people, not some invisible God.
And here is the absolutely tremendous “Fear and Fallacy, Sitting in a Tree (You Were Doing Well Until Everybody Died),” all about the fear of death. My favorite verse, which creeps into my head unbidden at all hours: “Let’s bow our heads for something, pray that God is on our side, because the pagan and the pious, they all sound the same, oh my God…” The chorus, a repeated “I know my time is coming,” couldn’t be more infectious. This is a great, great song.
Track seven is called “Are You a Mirror? (Or a Window?)” It’s another song to his daughter, in which Muse sings, “I look inside you and I see myself.” The music is something of a march – martial drums over strummed acoustics and a choir of “ba-ba-bas.” The second verse is haunting: “One day you will look me straight in my eyes, and judge me for the things I’ve been in your life, I hope you love me when you know me well…” That’s amazing. That’s every frightened new parent song ever written, summed up in three perfect lines.
So far, I’m very much enjoying this record, although I already know I’m going to have to go back and listen many more times to get it all. The production is vibrant and three-dimensional, and I know I’m missing sonic details on this first spin through. But thus far, it’s everything I’d hoped.
Track eight is the epic, the seven-minute “Everything Louder than Everything Else (Xanadu Clambake, Point Zion, RI, Summer 2001).” Yeah, that’s the real title. It starts gently, on rolling waves of acoustic guitar, but quickly builds up – the strings here are magnificent, adding to that on-the-ocean feeling. And then the wave breaks, and subsides again. Muse references the ocean in the first line, so the feel is not coincidental. “It’s time to get off our knees and offer our hands up to the earth, it’s time to find that we belong, and see what it’s worth…”
I am in awe of this song. It’s rushed to a climax and then pulled back three times already, each time more dramatic than the last. The full band is in now, and Muse is scream-singing, as he does so well. The chorus is pretty great – simple, like most of these songs so far, but effective and memorable. And now the sweet horns are back in. This song? This song’s terrific. Muse admits he’s “so damn scared” of dying, and that he believes there’s nothing past this. “And I’m almost there,” he sighs, and it’s chilling. I absolutely love this.
“The Black Sheep and the Shepherd (Look, I’m Just an Instrument, Okay?)” brings back the melody of “The Confessor,” as sung by a gospel choir around an old piano. The harmonies are breathtaking. And then we’re in another Beatles-type piano bounce. “I never heard Jesus speak to me, not in any way that I would consider speaking, but I bowed my head just the same,” he sings, before the chorus, which opens like a flower. This song feels like an examination of Muse’s Christian upbringing, and a rejection of it. “With all we know now, how can we say you just gotta take it all on faith, don’t think too much, just hush and pray, like we’ve always done…”
And now this: “Hey God, now I got a baby girl, what am I supposed to tell her about you? ‘Cause her life, it shouldn’t have to be like mine, she shouldn’t have to waste her time on waiting on you, because you never do come through…” The theme of the album in miniature. This is the most straightforward song on the record so far – the suicide verse is chilling. Very brave stuff.
“The Easy Confidence (What Would I Say to You Now)” has a propulsive, driving-at-night edge to it, with a great cello part and some circular guitar. But before long, Muse is railing against Jesus again, and screaming his lungs out on a stunning midsection. Quiet Company has never sounded this devoid of joy. But wait! Right around 3:15, the sun breaks through the clouds: “I want something better, I want something real.” The song gets brighter, but Muse keeps screaming, and the effect is amazing. This is the most un-QuietCo QuietCo song I have heard, and they pull it off masterfully. Man, that one’s exhausting.
After that, the quiet acoustic intro of “Midnight at the Lazarus Pit (The Harlot and the Beast are Dating)” is a nice break. But the themes remain heavy. Muse has spend the last few songs breaking free of God, of the hold religion has on him, and he turns his eyes to life and love. “I’m completely yours,” he sings, in what is, to this point, the record’s most beautiful moment. No, wait, here’s a more beautiful one – the strings and harmonies come in, building up this simple, lovely song into something transcendent. As huge as everything else has been, this is my favorite song so far.
And here is “Preaching to the Choir Invisible Part Two (What Do You Think Happens When We Live?),” the last of these songs I’ve heard before. “We filled a book with what Jesus said, so we could all disagree on what he meant to say…” “I’ll make a deal with Jesus Christ, speak just one word I can hear, prove you’re alive, and I’ll believe you’re there…” And the darkest “hallelujah” I’ve heard in ages. At this point in the album, I’m thinking it may have been a mistake to devote all 64 minutes to this theme. It feels like it’s all been said. This song is excellent, particularly the final repeated “we are all where we belong,” and there’s an artfulness to Muse’s rejection of spirituality, but it’s growing slightly repetitive.
Here is my favorite title of the bunch: “Never Tell Me the Odds! (This is the Worst Crazy Sect I’ve Ever Been In).” Despite the manic quality of the name, the song is low-key and pretty, rising up from a programmed rhythm and keys into a horn-driven hymn that feels like the sun rising. “Everybody’s probably gonna be all right…”
And the final bigbigBIG song, “At Last! The Celestial Being Speaks (The Utterly Indifferent).” It’s a folksy number with God as a main character. “I didn’t mean to be so abstract, so elusive, you see, but I don’t see why you would believe that you needed me…” It’s the final statement and summation of the theme: “Lift up your heads, don’t worry about death, you’re all gonna be just fine.” It’s a happy ending – after spending more than an hour breaking away from the feeling instilled in him as a boy that he needs God, or some force directing his life, Muse celebrates the mortal, the earthly, and finds it wonderful. Final track “Perspective” just sends it home – it’s a tender, unadorned love song at the last.
I definitely need to listen to this album a few more times before giving a full opinion – you can check back here for that closer to the October 4 release date. But my first impressions: this is a conceptual piece that probably could have been shorter, but musically it’s outstanding, easily the best thing this band has done. The subject matter (and the fact that the entire album explores it) is probably going to put off a few folks, but We Are All Where We Belong is a brave work that takes on big themes, and aims to be an Important Statement. We’ll see how I feel in a few listens, but on first run-through, it’s pretty great, if pretty naked and difficult stuff.
More later. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen for the second time.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.