If all was right with the world, songwriters like Neville Quinlan would be rich and famous and we'd never have heard of three-quarters of the singing heads on mainstream radio. The frontman of the Toronto-based band, NQ Arbuckle, has lots to growl about and The Future Happens Anyway, the fourth album (fifth if you count the collaboration with the great Carolyn Mark) from one of Canada's finest alt-country rockers, excavates to astonishing effect the emotional chasms created between life's beginnings and endings.
There's always been a weightiness to Quinlan's lyrics, and this time around he wastes no time, singing on the first track "Back to Earth": "So I'll see you around/ As often as I can/ There's a gravity to bodies/ That is making me touch down." Other than the upbeat "Lifeboat (Song for Carolyn Mark)," though, it's never all that clear whose births, deaths and affairs of the heart inspired the words here — the band shares songwriting duties, after all — but all of the verses, from the meet-your-maker epics ("Death" and the Irish poem "Art O'Leary") to the relationship eulogies ("Rotary Phone," "The Civil War is Over" and "Sleepy Wife"), hold together like a chain of events.
"I Wish That My Sadness Would Make You Change" is a beautiful, better-off-without-you ballad that masterfully combines pedal steel, piano (a new addition to this former foursome), and a string section, while the cover of Vic Chesnutt's haunting "Panic Pure," complete with backing fireworks, underlines the album's blue-collar, Sisyphean theme. "It's a long walk," Quinlan sings on "Hospitals," "but it's the short way home."
Make no mistake: this isn't a journey into darkness. There's a remarkable lack of emotional urgency here for an album of heart punches and heavy lifting. The sadness is an anesthetic that has already worn off. This album was a long time in the making, and in the interim, it sounds like Quinlan erased the messages from his phone and chased away most of the bitterness with shooters and beer; The Future Happens Anyway turns melancholy from downbeat and sombre into an inspiring example of get-the-hell-over-it alt-country balladry: "Let the wind out of your stare," he sings in the closing track, "it's not worth keeping."
NQ's bandmates, Mark Kesper, Jason Sniderman, John Dinsmore and Peter Kesper, along with some fabulous guest musicians, including Emm Gryner, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, have never sounded better. Spare, scaled-down arrangements offset full-band excursions on an album that, by year's end, should be on everyone's shortlist. (Six Shooter)