I love this line for VSDQ’s description of Transgression!!!: “Donald Miller, guitar icon known for destroying worlds in the great Borbetomagus, takes the listener on an unexpected journey…” Most of my life, and this past year in particular, the idea of creating worlds with sound and sonic agency (big recommendation of Brandon Labelle’s book) have been at the forefront of my mind. Trapped in lockdown, only seeing the same few people on a regular basis, and unable to go many places, finding ways to travel somewhere else in my mind has been integral to staying upright. When I read that line – and knew exactly what it meant as Borbetomagus takes up a lot of real estate in my personal essentials list – it got me thinking about how both sides of that concept are so important. And on Transgression!!! Miller shows he’s equally skilled at both.
On a surface level, this is a blues record, but as soon as you scarpe a little bit of dirt away with your trowel, it’s clear it’s so much more than that. Miller’s affection for this style most associated with Takoma records comes through not through mimicry, but through grinding the music down to its bones and rebuilding it with his distinct style. Structures appear in the distance without ever totally materializing, cloaking Transgression!!! in freeform shapes as on “There’s A Dance In The Old Dame Yet. (for our beloved Squeaky Frome).” Intriguing and mysterious, not knowing where the next sharp turn lies ahead is part of what makes the album so intoxicating. I keep listening over and over and continue to be surprised.
It’s mid-February and it’s already been a banner year for acoustic guitar albums. Donald Miller’s Transgression!!! stands on its own. Nothing else will sound like this and nothing else will unlock occult blues studies like this. As soon as Miller hits the opening chords of “The Man in the Well,” you’re hypnotized and ready to wander down the harmonic path he scrapes out before you. Give in, traveler, and you’ll get your medicine just fine.