When he debuted 11 years ago, Lewis Taylor was anointed as the Man Who Would Save Soul. The singer-songwriter/producer responded with an album of pop tunes heavily influenced by the Beach Boys, among others. His record label promptly shelved it. Lewis Taylor hasn’t found life in the music industry particularly simple since then.
Taylor clears his throat theatrically to introduce himself on “The Leader of the Band,” the third track from The LostAlbum — finally released in the U.S. — then takes an audible breath. It’s a gloriously rendered effect, sort of a declaration of “check this out” before he saunters through the song with cock-o’-the-walk rock-god/soul-man bravado. The entire album paces a tightrope of artistic daring, winning cockiness. But the risks taken aren’t the conventional pop-star tacks of a brooding new image or navel-gazing “this is the real me” lyrics — although it’s a highly personal album. Lost is the sound of artistic self-realization and career immolation all in one. (Strange how often the latter follows the former.) And it’s beautiful.
Lavishly produced, the album is a meeting ground of influences: Stax, Beach Boys, ’70s California pop, Motown and guitar-backed singer-songwriter vulnerability. Raw, foundational band jams are draped with intricate studio effects — overlapping background vocals, music dropping suddenly away to accentuate what’s being sung and then swelling back up again, a tapestry of harmonies and counterharmonies. On “Please Help Me if You Can,” his halting, stop, start, then soar delivery is tendered through a grainy falsetto: “I won’t risk another ache/Nobody knows where I’ve been/not even me/and that’s for sure/Somebody please help me / if you can . . . ”
Back in 1996, Taylor’s self-titled debut drew ecstatic comparisons to Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and even Prince. The diminutive Lewis, an Englishman of Jewish heritage, could easily have coasted as an MVP of blue-eyed soul. But from the start of his third-act solo career — he was in the prog-rock Edgar Broughton Band, and then worked for a time under the name Sheriff Jack — Taylor has exhibited unease with celebrity. More importantly, his interests and musical influences leap the boundaries of genre. You can feel that questing in his music, the journey, the search. It’s what makes him a volatile, unstable “commodity”: the fact that he refuses to be one, easily packaged and mechanically sold.
Taylor’s desire to explore musical expression beyond rigid category is both him following his muse and saying “fuck you” to a music industry that no longer even feigns interest in the art of making music. Even Lewis II (2000), the album he recorded in reluctant concession to Island Records’ A&R department, was too experimental for them. He wound up in the new millennium without major-label support, and neither Lewis Taylor (’96) nor Lewis II received a U.S. release — though they did become huge import cult items here. Rather than compromise further, Taylor took a page from Sinatra’s book, creating his own record label, Slow Reality, to release his music.
Taylor’s art-vs.-commerce predicament is boilerplate. Or it was. He announced his retirement from the music industry last year, and has steadfastly declined to give interviews in support of the new album (which was licensed for release by the visionary folks at HackTone Records). Many fans greeted his retirement with smiling disbelief. How could a man with sevenths in his sinews and key changes in his blood just walk away from his calling? Apparently, just like that (though we can all hope he pulls a Michael Jordan — or a Brian Wilson — and suits up again).
Like all truly important artists, Taylor forces us to ask questions beyond his art itself. And as he segues from the ranks of the embattled to the disillusioned, certain questions arise: What is the role of the creative being in the popular sphere and the pop imagination? What is his relationship to us mere mortals who love his music? What’s his relationship to the divine/sacred/inspired? And how do those last two connections . . . connect?
We depend upon artists to challenge us, reassure us, articulate that which we cannot, give shape to our dreams and nightmares, and take those deep mythic journeys — returning to us with 3-minute maps. But artists are also dependent on us. And it’s not just about monetary support and career stability: Artists need the world to feed their imaginations, to provide the well from which they draw. Yeah, it’s always and forever been a bitch to be an artist, and with the Internet, MySpace and ever cheaper technology, anyone who wants to create can do so, and put his or her shit out into the world. (Who says there’s no downside to democracy?)
But have a little sympathy for the devil. Artists today struggle in a compromised creative atmosphere: The language of ideas, and the terms of artistic viability, have shrunk. There’s a host of well-documented causes, but one of the most interesting in Taylor’s case is the half-witted mandate for “realness” and “authenticity” suffocating our collective imagination. “Reality” TV swamps the airwaves; rap, reportedly in its death throes but not really, has vaulted hard-knock first-person studio-thug narratives to the Top 40 — but the truth is niggasbelyintheyassesoff.
Those artists and fans who grasp the truth-divining qualities of a genuinely unboxed imagination are marginalized. It’s the pretenders to freedom who are celebrated. Even more ironically, through his use of artifice and playfulness, Lewis Taylor unearths more soulfulness and honesty than a host of hip-hop thugs or indie poseurs.
I don’t want to misrepresent Taylor’s work here. It’s pop. But it’s also art — endlessly accessible but painstakingly constructed. There are songs about love, songs about self-discovery, songs where I’m not sure what they’re about but they make me smile. This is music that gently pushes you, takes what you already know, what you have already experienced or dreamed, and puts it to words that you might not have written yourself but that you instantly (or soon enough) recognize as your own. It turns you into art, freeing your imagination to fly. “The Leader of the Band,” my favorite track this week, is an air-swept melody, full of breezy harmonies with drawn-out oohs and ahhs and sideways bah-bah-bahs. It’s on an unapologetic ’60s tip. It trips the trigger between sound and memory, allowing one’s private reserve of mental imagery to tumble forth, rather than some choreographed music-video shit. For me, it conjures that smiling, sated morning-after feeling of watching an underwear-clad lover eat a bowl of cereal, morning sunlight fracturing through a naked window.
What is most affecting about Taylor’s voice as it cuts through the baroque detail of his production (chores he shares with his creative partner, Sabina Smyth) is the sheer musicality of it. Singing makes him happy. That comes through so very clearly in his performances, even in those songs of despair. Especially check out “Please Help Me if You Can,” where his piercing “pleeease . . .” annihilates you. He fully inhabits his gifts, bringing both a brainy music geek’s penchant for detail and a pop escapist’s yearning for the unencumbered head rush. It’s aspirational pop.
The LostAlbum’s U.S. release includes three acoustic tracks not found on the European version. They’re stripped-down versions of tunes from his ’96 debut. When you read the track list, they appear to be a big mistake. Instead, they act as a bracing after-dinner cocktail. The final cut, “Song,” is so stark and beautiful a tune of heartache it almost feels intrusive to listen to it. It’s about how pathetic love can make you, how sometimes even when you know you are being used, you’re so sprung that you keep coming back for more ill treatment. And when he sings, “I never wanted to love someone this way,” it pours straight from the veins.