Taken by Cars’ ‘Plagues’: like diamonds from ashes

An understanding of the indie electro-rock outfit’s mellow third record, tracing through themes from ‘Dualist’.

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The members of Taken by Cars, standing behind a neon sign and illuminated by colorful lighting.

The music of Taken by Cars has always been distant in its emotions, esoteric in its approach. The track that launched them into relative fame, ‘A Weeknight Memoir’, featured new wave inflections and Sarah Marco’s trademark androgynous vocals—an introduction that captured for them a loyal following, but probably alienated many casual listeners who would prefer instantly-delectable pop.

While the themes of their songs are certainly universal, the words are often enigmatic. ‘Quarter to Three’, a magnificent, driven piece from their 2011 sophomore album Dualist, contains these elegant albeit puzzling lines:

And if our machinations prove to be the blame
Let the freedom give me back and call your name
Obey your elders

The rest of the tracks in Dualist are more readily intelligible, but the vocabulary and choice of imagery in some songs point to a curious theme. ‘Thrones: Indifference’ alludes to Christian faith:

I want to believe
In death we will rise again
Confessions received with you
Will never be seen

Compare this with ‘Thrones: Equals’, which is named like a sequel or companion—it features lyrical paradoxes reminiscent of the Beatitudes:

If you’re weak then might as well try to tame it
If you’re strong give in to what they say
You’ll find there’s peace inside this graceful madness
Give it all thinking you’ll find a way

(‘Dualist’, among other things, refers to a believer in the dichotomy of good and evil.)

The band’s new record, Plagues, breaks from their established sound, but is thematically a consistent sequel to Dualist. They still deal with topics as human as any other—love and longing and listlessness—but they take their lyrical detachment, their poetic distance, further than ever.

Consider ‘Crows’, track seven in Plagues but released as early as 2013. It proved prophetic of the shoe-gaze feel the band would eventually adopt for the full album. The slow-burning, atmospheric single evokes storms, chains and oceans in a stunning declaration of loyalty.

The calm before the storm
The wrong before the right
The cold that kills the warmth
The anger that burns bright
The sight for what’s unseen
The willing to turn clean
I’ll be with you

Until crows turn white

Whereas Dualist depicted conflicts between opposites, Plagues paints a picture of living in the aftermath. The choice of poetic images is particularly apocalyptic: floods, visions, crows, soothsayers, nomads. At a time when songwriting is often immediately personal, embellished with contemporary contexts, this timeless and literary style is refreshing.

The 10-track album begins with ‘Floods’, a lively affair driven by chant-like, repeated lines. The tone of this opener strongly recalls the steely palette of Taken by Cars’ Endings of A New Kind, but it proves to be the only track in Plagues to do so. It is followed by ‘Turn of the Tide’, a groovy yet restrained profession of faith.

We’re waiting for light to break through open windows…
Across the waves, I’ve come to find you…
‘Cause if to see the light, a heaven is worth believing

‘All Nighter’, an expression of desire for company (“Tell me to stay all night, whisper to me”), and ‘Neon Dreams’, ecstatic and disbelieving (“Could this be true, a vision of me and you?”), are not as bleak in tone, but loneliness is seeping in from the edges. The latter track is also, musically, an outcast in Plagues, with its bright beats and candy synths.

Midway through the album is ‘Soothsayer’, the sublime lead-single with the caustic shoegaze atmosphere. Preceding ‘Crows’ is the three-minute instrumental title track, ‘Plagues’. Its haunting cadence summons the darkest hour in Plagues‘ metaphorical journey through the night.

‘Crows’ is followed by relief in ‘Truce’, a nimble song of surrender, where we hear Marco sing again in a sweet register like in Dualist‘s ‘Considerate’, which is always pleasant.

Falling on my knees
Break me piece by piece
Call a truce with you, call a truce with you

‘Threshold’ is a final struggle for greatness, which, like ‘Soothsayer’, speaks of a plea for salvation.

At the summon of a threshold
when all is said and done
At the summon of a threshold
where the blind can feel the sun

Are you gonna make a real change
when all they do is bring you down?

Save me from the world
that’s keeping me from you,
what’s keeping me from you

The epic climax of ‘Threshold’ stands in stark contrast to Plagues‘ closing act, the peculiar ‘Nomads’. This track feels like the feeble sunlight breaking through thick clouds; the hopeful turn at the end of a bleak journey, the final salvation and escape. It sounds like a song sung by a traveler who, weary from having seen it all, comes to reconsider truths in peace.

Come with me as a fair-weather friend

And I know, that the truth is somehow buried here in the shadows
And I know I said that time would heal all wounds
And the truth is somehow buried here in the shadows

Plagues is not to be judged by the number of years it took the artist to craft it. (Six, an eternity in this modern world.) Yet, it feels like time well-spent, on a record light in duration but heavy in artistry. It is not only about the immensity of imagery employed in the album, its powerful metaphors for intimate, personal conflicts. Plagues also has a consistency and cohesiveness that is much-needed these days in works from local musicians.

The creative decision to limit the tempo in Plagues might be an obstacle for those who have become used to the blistering rhythms of the band’s old sound. Indeed, listening to songs from this album after Dualist or Endings of A New Kind is almost a jarring experience. But Taken by Cars is asking for faith from their followers. Stay and listen, they beckon, and you might in time see the glory in the aftermath, the beauty in wastelands, the diamonds among ashes.

The featured image in this article is the work of Niña Sandejas, and was obtained through Taken by Cars’ official Facebook page at facebook.com/takenbycars.

Plagues (and Dualist, Endings of A New Kind) is on Spotify:

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