I grew up in a church.
My dad was Catholic, my mother Protestant. My mom won, so we all joined a Congregationalist church in Medway, Massachusetts. I grew up with Sunday services, youth group meetings, even week-long retreats to cabins in the woods. I went to Christian summer camp, I said prayers before meals, I read the Bible cover to cover more than once. (I even had a thousand-page comic book Bible, sanitized for my protection – when the Israelites killed women and children because God told them to, they did so off-panel.)
I was always a spiritual kid, but from about 11 to about 15, I went through a hardcore Jesus phase. I not only listened to bands like Petra and White Heart, I joined a Christian rock band with a couple other like-minded middle-schoolers. I was all about it, all the time, and I think at the core of my full-bore dive into faith was a desperate need to belong, to believe, to be part of something. Because I would question it all the time. Have I prayed the right prayer? Am I really going to heaven? My pastor told me again and again that hell was real, and I was deeply terrified of ending up there.
Because here’s the thing. I never once, not even at my most fervent, heard the voice of God talking to me. Others in my church would say they did. “I hear him speaking to me,” they would say. “God told me that I should walk this path,” they would tell me. And I wanted to. I truly, truly wanted to hear that voice. So I prayed and waited and prayed some more and listened and held on for years. Nothing.
And eventually I grew so disillusioned with the church that I drifted away completely. (There were political reasons as well, which I won’t get into here.) As a surly young teen, I started asking questions, and felt let down by the answers. I lost whatever belief I had, and I still haven’t regained it. Now, at 37, I feel like I’m more honestly spiritual than I’ve ever been. I’m fascinated by religion, fascinated by belief, certain that there is something greater than us, though I have no idea what it is. I’m still unsure how to answer questions about my own faith.
But I’ve really come to an undeniable and painful conclusion about that time in my life: everyone who told me they heard the voice of God was lying. No one actually hears it. We take signs and metaphors and feelings and find God in them. That’s what we do. I didn’t realize that then – I thought there was something wrong with me, something deficient, something unworthy. And the moment I realized that wasn’t true still counts among the happiest of my life.
And that’s the moment, right there, that Taylor Muse so deftly and beautifully captures on Quiet Company’s third album, We Are All Where We Belong. Whenever I listen to it, that’s the experience I relive. That sense of relief, of freedom, of life surging back into me. For more than an hour here, Muse explores that moment – he details all the pain leading up to it, and raises his fist triumphantly when it arrives. This is Muse’s Curse Your Branches, his breakup album with God, and it is angry and petulant in parts, but it is mostly joy through tears. It’s an album not simply about leaving something behind, but about finding something better to replace it.
It’s a record that will upset some people, even some people I know. But I am coming around to the idea that We Are All Where We Belong is the best album of 2011, not just for being a brilliant, consistent, extraordinary piece of music, but for being remarkably brave and honest about a subject few want to discuss. Muse has bared his soul here – he unflinchingly describes intensely private moments of tested faith, and makes you feel every step of this journey, and every elated second of its destination.
Because unlike David Bazan’s album, We Are All Where We Belong is not the work of a questioning soul still finding his peace. This is an album that comes to a conclusion, crests the mountain and plants a flag. And here is what’s amazing about this record to me. The conclusion is this: everything you were taught about God is wrong, there is no heaven waiting for you when you die, we are all on our own, and all we have is each other. And it’s a triumphant, gloriously happy thing – not in spite of that conclusion, but because of it.
I suppose if you weren’t raised with religion, that may not be surprising to you. But it is to me, so much so that it took some time to really grasp it. All those ideas that used to scare me to death – What if there is no God? What if there’s nothing after this? What if we’re all alone? All of those ideas are explored as unqualified good things here. Where Bazan’s unbelief makes him sick, Muse’s feels like casting off shackles.
This is the kind of album that only someone who once intensely believed could make. It’s laced with betrayal and shame and anger. Muse grew up in a devoutly Christian household, and parts of this record are about how he still feels the emptiness where faith once was, the pull of something he no longer believes in. (“If Jesus Christ ever reached down and touched my life, he certainly left no sign to let me know he had, and I wouldn’t mind that he couldn’t find the time, it’s just that now my heart longs for things that probably don’t exist…”) This is not an album that rejects faith out of hand – Muse struggled with this, and still does. This is the result and culmination of years of painful wrestling with the issue.
It’s also an album of astonishingly good songs. In fact, there are only two songs here I would describe as “merely great.” The rest are phenomenal. What may get lost in all the discussion of the thematic power of this record is the huge leap forward in craft it represents for Muse, already one of the best songwriters around. This is also the album on which Quiet Company, the band, fully gels and makes its mark. Previous QuietCo records were mainly Muse, with some help from his friends. This one is fully realized – it sounds like a band at the peak of their powers.
You get that sense right away – after the buildup of “The Confessor,” the band erupts into “You, Me and the Boatman,” one of the year’s catchiest singles. Over a powerhouse beat from Jeff Weathers, roaring guitars from Tommy Blank and blaring horns, Muse opens the book on two of the record’s big themes: the fear of death, and the salvation of love. It’s the record’s mission statement: “I don’t care about the past and future,” Muse sings, “when this existence is probably all we have, and so the lives we make are all that matter, so let’s live to love and love to live…”
Muse spends the next hour delving into that theme, and what initially seemed to me to be an over-examination – literally every song on this album is about this – now flows beautifully in my mind from first note to last. I’m particularly fond of the way the two parts of “Preaching to the Choir Invisible” – sequenced third and twelfth, respectively – counterpoint one another. The first part is your first indication that this is not going to be like other QuietCo records. It’s tricky and complex and elaborate, and makes the first cut: “Open up the pit, he swallows or spits, and I swallowed that shit for so long, now what should I think of faith? It ain’t noble or brave, and I don’t need to be saved or chosen…”
The second part is darker, and takes sharper aim – it’s the culmination of the more incisive second half. “We filled a book with what Jesus said, so we can all disagree on what he really meant.” “I’ll make a deal with Jesus Christ, just speak one word I can hear, prove you’re alive, and I’ll believe you’re here.” “I have rejected holier spirits than you, it’s no big deal, hallelujah.” It’s like Part One is Muse starting to talk about it, and Part Two is him finally screaming about it, getting it out, and moving on. Both songs end with the album’s title phrase, and while it almost comes too early in the album on Part One, it’s the perfect conclusion to Part Two.
Between those two poles, Muse picks at his past, and revels in his present. The sweetest songs on this record are reserved for his new daughter. “Are You a Mirror” is, bar none, the greatest new father song I’ve ever heard. “I look inside you and I see myself,” Muse sings, before delivering this stunner of a line: “And one day you will look me straight in the eyes, and judge me for the things I’ve been in your life, I hope you love me when you know me well…” “Set Your Monster Free” is a lovely tune about letting your child choose her own beliefs: “Daughter, I am wrong almost as often as I’m right, so Daughter, just be strong enough to make up your own mind…”
That song also delves into Muse’s own religious upbringing, and what it did to him. “You don’t have to waste your time holding on to beautiful lies,” he sings to his daughter, and later, in “The Black Sheep and the Shepherd,” he addresses God directly: “Hey God, now I got a baby girl, what am I supposed to tell her about you? Because her life 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…” You can’t fake a sense of betrayal like that – this is undeniably the statement of someone who once believed with all his heart, and just can’t anymore.
The amazing “Fear and Fallacy, Sitting in a Tree” tackles the fear of death, a recurring motif. This song contains one of my favorite moments on the record, the second verse: “So let’s bow our heads for something, pray that God is on our side, but the pagan and the pious, they all sound the same, ‘Oh my God! Oh my god!’” This bit pops, unbidden, into my head at all hours.
The first half of this album sounds like Quiet Company, but better – sharp, melodic pop songs with a kick. But as much as I like that stuff, it’s the four songs that lead into “Choir Invisible Part Two” that set this album atop any other this year. “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” is a seven-minute Sufjan Stevens-esque wonderama that takes us back to the beginning of time, and shows that fear of death is nothing new. “It’s time to get off of our knees and offer our hands up to the earth, and it’s time to find where we belong and see what it’s worth,” Muse sings, over pulsing strings and delirious guitars. It’s an incredible song.
But it doesn’t prepare you for “The Black Sheep and the Shepherd,” the song that delves into Muse’s past, in often chilling ways. “The river’s wide, and I could not swim across it, so I convinced myself that I walked upon the waves, but I lied and I knew I’d lied, but I did everything I could to soothe the family pride, and I just don’t think I can keep it up now…” It contains the record’s most harrowing passage, delivered in a matter-of-fact voice over lilting music: “The only times I ever thought of suicide, I was waiting on the Lord to direct my life, saying, ‘Give me one word and I’ll put down the knife and never pick it up again…’”
There is nothing wrong with us, Muse concludes at the end of this song. We’re not broken and defective because we don’t hear God’s voice. He’s not speaking. And that leads us into “The Easy Confidence,” subtitled “What I Would Say to You Now.” This is the album’s most powerful, frightening song, a bitter and angry shout to the heavens. “I was screaming out your name, I guess you never heard me, but I was screaming it for years,” it begins. The music starts at a slow creep, but soon takes off, Muse screaming his head off, like Job rending his garments: “I’ve got a bone to pick, and I want to pick it clean, the prodigal son and his shameful disbelief…”
It’s the final kiss-off, the big middle finger to God, and it ends in anger and recrimination: “This isn’t love, we’re not in love, if you wanted love you just should have spoken up.” It’s a devastating moment, and I can’t even explain to you what it feels like to hear it. It’s years of pent-up rage coming out, and as someone who has had similar one-sided shouting matches with God in my time, this song hit me pretty deep. Muse answers it with the next song, “Midnight at the Lazarus Pit,” a simple and glorious love song in which Muse gladly trades the spirit for the flesh. The refrain (“I’m completely yours”) is this album’s most lovely moment, and it takes us into “Choir Invisible Part Two,” in many ways the end of the journey.
So there we are. God has been rejected, life has been embraced. Nothing is waiting for us after death, and we shouldn’t fear it. We should take every day that’s given to us, and enjoy it, since it’s all we have. The lives we make are all that matter. There is nothing wrong with us. We are all where we belong. In the final track, “At Last! The Celestial Being Speaks,” Muse takes on God’s voice and apologizes for being so elusive. The album ends with this sentiment: “So lift up your heads, don’t worry about death, we’re all gonna be just fine.”
It’s amazing. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions – and I don’t, not completely – this album is nearly flawless, and almost jaw-droppingly brave. In the same way that I am fascinated to hear artists like Terry Taylor and Steve Hindalong explain to me why they believe, I am fascinated to hear Taylor Muse explain to me why he doesn’t. In a lot of ways, this album gives a voice to that 15-year-old kid I was, questioning and drifting and finally breaking away. I never heard God speak to me either, Taylor, and I don’t think anyone ever does.
For me, what brought me back around to spirituality was music. I heard the Choir’s amazing Circle Slide in 1990, just as I was turning bitter and angry, and it helped me see a different perspective. But I have felt the way Taylor Muse feels here, and though life led me a different way, and toward different destinations, I feel like I walked at least part of this journey with him. And I’m grateful for and in awe of his honesty here. Though I know many people who will have strong negative reactions to this record, I think it’s a masterpiece. And each listen convinces me of that even more.
I don’t know if this long ramble has made any sense. I also don’t know if it’s convinced you to give We Are All Where We Belong a try, or if it’s scared you off. It took me several listens to truly absorb this piece, but I think it’s 2011’s finest. It is certainly its most powerful. It has touched me and made me think more than any other, and its songs dance across my mind nearly every day. I’m awed by it, frightened of it, and in love with it. It is the best record of Quiet Company’s career, and the best thing I’ve heard this year.
See you in line Tuesday morning.