In my head, Quiet Company is deservedly famous.
To me, there is absolutely no doubt that they are among the best and most important rock bands to emerge in the last 10 years. I don’t say this lightly. I’ve watched in awe as frontman Taylor Muse grew his one-man project into a tight, hard-hitting ensemble, and reached new heights as a songwriter. He’s written some of the best songs of the last decade, songs that dig deep and, without irony, reach for soul-baring greatness.
In 2011, after two albums that were, respectively, very good and excellent, Quiet Company made the best record of the year. We Are All Where We Belong detailed Muse’s disillusionment with religion and his renewed commitment to love – grand themes, delivered with a sweeping intensity and an ear for indelible melody. It’s a powerful and shakingly honest piece of work, one I keep coming back to. It is, in no small measure, a masterpiece, and in the perfect world in my head, it was rightly hailed as such by all and sundry.
In this world, however, QuietCo is still referred to as a “rising Austin band.” They’ve come a long way since their early days, and each time I go see them in Chicago they draw more and more people. (They’re astonishingly good live, by the way, ferocious and intense in all the right ways.) The band’s dedicated following has grown steadily over the years, and it’s been a joy to watch. But I want them to be household names. I want Muse’s songs celebrated in the most popular music publications. I want to have to fight for tickets to their shows. I want poseable Tommy Blank and Matt Parmenter action figures. (OK, maybe not that last one.)
Which brings me to Transgressor, the fourth QuietCo album. I don’t like to make predictions here, but you know that sense you get when a band has made just the right album at just the right time to get them to just the right place? That’s the feeling I get when I listen to Transgressor. This is a different kind of Quiet Company album – it’s leaner, it’s louder, it’s more compact, and it’s by far their easiest to connect with immediately. It seems specifically crafted to be your first Quiet Company album, and your best introduction to what this band does.
This change feels deliberate to me. In addition to writing more succinct songs – none of these 11 numbers breaks five minutes – the band enlisted a producer for the first time (Matt Noveskey of Blue October) and recorded much of this album live. You can tell – this record roars at you with a ferocity the band has previously only exhibited on stage, and the first half especially tears by so quickly that you’ll be at the midpoint before you can catch your breath. Even the more epic tracks, like the amazing “A Year in Decline” and “The Virgin’s Apartment,” rocket forward with purpose and stay only as long as they need to.
I will admit to being initially underwhelmed by this direction – I love Muse’s ambition, his willingness to open his songs up to expansive arrangements and lengths. But I’ve been unable to get Transgressor out of my CD player and out of my head for a while now, and here is what I’ve learned: weak moments on Quiet Company albums were few and far between to begin with, but there isn’t a single one on Transgressor. There isn’t time for one. This is a record with a mission, and even in the second half, when the scope widens and the music gets more dramatic, the tendency to sprawl is curtailed. There’s no “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” on this record, but there are several songs that take the grandeur of that song and accomplish it in four minutes.
We Are All Where We Belong wrestled with heaven and hell, taking on the absence of God, the redemptive power of love and other heady topics. Transgressor, on the other hand, is down in the mud. It’s no less a concept record, but this one is about coming to terms with one’s own failings and hoping that love is enough to overcome them. Behind that tuneful exterior, Transgressor hides a lot of emotional turmoil, coiled up and waiting to explode. And you’ll be singing along with all of it.
The first three songs, in fact, rank among the darkest Muse has written. “Seven Hells” (a cheeky Game of Thrones reference) explodes right out of the gate – no prelude, no buildup, just a thudding drumbeat, a badass bass line and Muse’s powerful howl. “I’ve got a problem and I can’t seem to fix it, Midas touch of turning things to shit… Now everyone I love has figured out what I do, and so everyone I love is living out the same awful truth…” This song introduces Transgressor, Muse’s evil twin, who crushes all the things he can’t let go. “Make peace with all your demons when you just don’t have the strength to cast them out,” Muse screams, and while the song ends with glimmers of hope, that line sets the tone.
“The Most Dangerous Game,” one of the catchiest songs Muse has ever written, finds him struggling against fatalism. “I know everything I build here will burn, once you understand the problem you can learn how to be part of it… Now my veins are full of rust and it’s worse than I thought…” But it’s “Mother of a Deal” that takes the prize for darkest song on the record. The beat is almost jaunty, the melody bouncy, but the words… Muse calls himself “the patron saint of making bad decisions,” admits that “I don’t think I’m ever gonna be the kind of man I wanted me to be,” and sings of drowning in blood, still swinging. “These tired songs don’t resonate, they never did much anyway,” he sings, before the music explodes in a shouted mantra of “sell yourself, sell sell sell!”
It’s arresting stuff, and hearing so much self-doubt and churning emotion from one of my favorite songwriters makes my heart ache. “Understand the Problem,” the ultra-catchy first single, doubles as an apology from Muse to his wife for his failings, and for the choices that lead him away from home. “I’m so tired of practicing on stages, every empty bar a bad decision that I’m making, I wish I was someone else, I wish you loved someone else…” It’s a powerful song, Muse vowing to right the wrongs his absence has been causing, and begging forgiveness. After that, you need “Kindness,” the beautiful acoustic love song that closes out the first half. “And we will carry one another as we march into the sun, singing darling I will never get enough of your kindness, of your laughter, of your love.” It’s a wedding song, and one of the prettiest things in the QuietCo catalog.
Things get much more widescreen, and thankfully much more hopeful, in the second half. “I Heard the Devil Call My Name” is a stunner, one that truly benefits from the live-band recording. It’s a love song, but a realistic one: “I’m begging you to know me, I’m begging you to figure me out, are you brave enough to love me, are you smart enough to have your doubts?” And then comes “A Year in Decline,” and ten months from now, this will still be one of the very best songs of 2015. It gallops along, causing an almighty racket as it does, but when the torrent subsides for Muse to sing “I can’t sleep if you’re not laying next to me,” it’s one of my favorite musical moments. “Cast them down, those devils of our lesser natures,” Muse screams, and that’s the record’s real turning point.
From here on, Transgressor is a love story, and an absolutely beautiful one. Nothing about these last three songs is idealistic, or magical, or sprinkled with fairy dust. These are love songs full of the dust of the earth, worn and weary but ready to be open and vulnerable. “Wherever You Take Me” might be Muse’s prettiest song, based on a simple pattern of piano chords. “I’ll stay as long as you will have me, and I’ll follow if you want to lead, I’ll share the load that gets so heavy, wherever you take me, home I will be.” This song puts the rest of the album in perspective: “I think that maybe I lost myself on a year of trying to be someone else, now I’m scared and sad and feeling stuck, but I ain’t never gonna give you up…”
The oddly titled “The Virgin’s Apartment” is massive, a layered epic in 4:02, and it finds Muse vowing to his wife that “we will make these four walls sacred, a Parthenon.” (Seriously, you need to hear the final, mostly wordless minutes of this song – they’re intense.) And the closer, “Midnight at the Dairy Palace” (a title that hearkens back to a song on the previous album), is simply gorgeous. It feels like a swaying ballad at first, but it builds and builds, the glorious refrain ringing out: “At the end of the day, ‘till the end of our days, you belong with me.” The sweeping strings echo the “I can’t sleep” melody of “A Year in Decline,” connecting these final four songs in a delightful suite, one that resolves the album’s more turbulent moments beautifully.
Transgressor may even be a more honest and naked record than Belong, which is an impressive feat all in itself. That they managed such honesty on a record that also feels like a perfectly crafted next-level introduction to a legion of new fans is remarkable. Transgressor plays like a rocket ride and reads like a diary, and that is probably its greatest triumph. It’s everything I love about QuietCo in a smaller, more direct package. It is exactly the right record at exactly the right time, and I hope it makes them as famous as they deserve to be.
You can help. Listen to Transgressor and buy it from the band here.
Next week, who knows? I can’t think that far ahead. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.