I have a complicated relationship with Steve Taylor’s work, but there aren’t many artists I would wait 20 years for, and Taylor is one.
This week, Taylor and his new band, a supergroup called The Perfect Foil, released Goliath. It’s his first album of new music since 1994, after two decades in the wilderness. (He made some movies, one of which – Blue Like Jazz – was actually pretty good.) Goliath is the very definition of worth the wait, but before I can truly review it, I feel like I need to explore both a) why my relationship with Taylor’s music is complex, and b) just exactly why he’s one of the artists I would wait half my life for.
So who is this Steve Taylor guy? Well, when he started out, he was the first one to bring the fine art of satire to the Nashville Christian music scene. I was 12 when I first heard Taylor’s 1985 album On the Fritz, and I gravitated to the funnier songs – “Lifeboat,” which effectively dramatized our culture’s obsession with looks and wealth by having a bunch of school kids murder their teacher, and “Drive, He Said,” an encounter with the devil on a dusty highway. But On the Fritz is a much deeper record than that, one that takes on Christian hypocrisy with a sharp bite. I didn’t fully understand it when I first encountered it, but I’ve grown to love it over time.
I think what I responded to most was its anger. Taylor was (and still is) a furious writer, despite being one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. And here’s where that complex relationship comes in, because his earliest work – the 1983 EP I Want to Be a Clone and the 1984 album Meltdown – wield that anger the same way pundits on Fox News do. Sometimes his targets are deserving, as in “We Don’t Need No Colour Code,” a snarling swipe at Bob Jones University’s race-based admissions policy. But songs like “Whatever Happened to Sin” strut with a moral absolutism (and a whiff of homophobia) that I can’t get behind. Taylor does get deeper – “Over My Dead Body” still knocks me out, as does “Hero,” proof that he wasn’t just some funnyman pointing fingers. But Meltdown is a young man’s record, even beyond its synth-y datedness, and I haven’t listened to it in a long time.
But when I was 13, I was midway through my hardcore Jesus phase, and the black-and-white world of Meltdown and (to a lesser extent) On the Fritz suited me just fine. Remarkably, though, as my perspective shifted and deepened, so to did Taylor’s. In 1987, he released one of my favorite records, full stop. It’s called I Predict 1990, and it’s the darkest, most biting piece of work I’ve ever heard from the Christian industry. It begins with a song from the point of view of an insane man who bombs abortion clinics, and goes on to spin tales of greed, manipulation and hopelessness. (One song is actually called “Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better.”) It culminates with “Harder to Believe Than Not To,” a song about not throwing away faith in the face of a terrifying, cold world, and at the end of this record, that song is nothing short of beautiful.
Naturally, none of this went down well with the Bible-bangers. The cover art for I Predict 1990, which to some resembled a tarot card, also drew controversy, and Taylor took to calling up store owners to explain his intentions. What was at the time one of the most honest and difficult records to ever grace a Family Christian Bookstore was roundly banned. This led to Taylor quitting church (metaphorically speaking) around the same time that I did. When we heard from him again, he was fronting a band called Chagall Guevara, which Rolling Stone favorably compared to the Clash, and issuing their self-titled debut on MCA Records.
Chagall Guevara is one of those records every fan of rock music should hear. It’s loud, brash and brilliant, full of hooks and blood-red claws. It broke cleanly and completely from Taylor’s ‘80s-new-wave past, infusing his sound with a raw rock feel. It outed him as an incredible frontman, kinetic and explosive, and the mighty band he fronted finally afforded Taylor’s angry, powerful lyrics the force they deserved. That so few people heard Chagall Guevara, and that the band broke up after only that one record, is one of the biggest musical injustices of the 1990s. That Taylor only managed one more solo record – 1994’s amazing Squint – before taking his leave of music completely is another.
For most of the world, Taylor’s lasting legacy is “Kiss Me,” a song he produced and released for Sixpence None the Richer in 1997. But for me, it’s three immortal albums between 1987 and 1994, albums which changed my outlook on a lot of important things. I know so few artists who can treat mockery like an art form (“Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better,” “Jung and the Restless,” “Easy Listening”) and then sucker-punch me with emotion (“Harder to Believe Than Not To,” “Candy Guru”) the way he can. If I’ve heard a love-in-hard-times anthem better than “If It All Comes True,” I can’t think of it. And if any spiritually minded artist has written a mea culpa as wonderful as “Jesus Is for Losers,” I also can’t think of it.
I’ve gotten used to thinking of Taylor’s brief discography as a moment sealed in amber, but it’s an important one for me, one I have returned to again and again as I’ve grown up and apart from many of the things I once believed. Taylor’s thoughtful, vicious, deeply spiritual work is one of the things I’ve kept from that time, and not a year goes by when I don’t revisit it. Steve Taylor has been important to me for nearly 30 years, even if he’s been silent for the last 20 of them.
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So that’s why it was worth waiting two decades for Goliath. Now, is Goliath worth waiting two decades for?
For me, it’s an unequivocal yes. Taylor assembled an incredible band for this outing, including guitarist Jimmy Abegg, bassist/horn player John Mark Painter and drummer Peter Furler, all men with a strong musical legacy. He funded it through Kickstarter, asking for $40,000 and raising $121,197. It was an incredible show of support from his longtime fans, and he used some of the extra money to mount a pre-album tour, playing songs both new and old with this kickass ensemble. I saw his show at AudioFeed in July, and it knocked me out.
So expectations have been pretty high, and I think Goliath meets them. This is the leanest, most focused record of Taylor’s career – it’s 10 sharp, fantastic rock songs and one expansive epic finale. The smartest thing Taylor and company have done with Goliath is to treat it like a debut album, like an introduction aimed at securing a new audience. Goliath is designed to be your first exposure to Steve Taylor, a brief yet powerful ride through the thoughtful rage that has always defined him. There are no speed bumps here – the record explodes like a cannon in its first minute and doesn’t stop pulling you through it for the next 39.
Much of that is down to the band, the most accomplished and savage one Taylor has put together since Chagall Guevara. Opener “Only a Ride” shows them off at their rawest, Furler’s pounding drums riding a simple powerhouse riff by Painter and Abegg. Taylor is 56 years old, but he sounds half his age, screaming out the chorus: “It’s only a ride, why am I bleeding?” In two minutes and 23 seconds, the song just clobbers you, and then gets out of the way. The same holds true for most of Goliath, actually – you have to get to track 10 before you find one that breaks the four-minute mark.
It makes sense to discuss the record in two parts – the 10 songs that fire off, one after another, from the start, and then the epic at the end. The meat of Goliath burns by at a frenetic pace – you’ll be half done with the record before you know it, and that’s down to the songs. They’re remarkably sharp things, with not an ounce of fat on them, and they’re deceptively, immaculately produced. Taylor earns his reputation as a biting, thoughtful lyricist throughout. “Double Negative,” one of the album’s best, glides in on a 7/4 beat while Taylor steps into the shoes of an eternal pessimist. “Bells are ringing in the town of the terminal heartache, bells are ringing, is it Easter or the start of an earthquake?”
The title track is an anthem for the underdog (“You’ve been on a roll, pushing us around, here’s your high five, now you’re going down”) set to a horn-driven march. “Moonshot,” which borrows from the Pixies’ strut, sounds like Taylor psyching himself up to make this record after two decades in the wilderness: “May the planets align for you, hold steady and taut, if you’re face down in desperation know that everybody gets one moonshot.” “Rubberneck” is the album’s hardest rocker, all about our social media world. Taylor even rhymes “take an Instagram, ah” with “this is someone’s grandma” while taking us to task for thinking “we have a right to know every ugly detail.”
“The Sympathy Vote” takes things political over a Black Keys-worthy bit of blues-rock, Taylor announcing in a carnival barker voice that there are only three certainties: death, taxes and professional jealousy. The smooth “Standing in Line” details a low point in a long-lasting relationship with surprising directness: “I’ve been standing in line so long, I’ve been wondering what went wrong, I’ve been trying to understand, I’m not gonna leave…” The arrangement on this song is wonderful, Abegg’s clean guitars shimmying all over a danceable beat from Furler and Painter.
The raw rock returns with “In Layers,” another highlight. It’s a cynical piece about the state of things – “If it’s naivety it looks best on the young, give it time and you’ll be comfortably dumb” – but it turns to hard-won hope by the end: “Throw up your hands and hell keeps yawning, open your eyes there’s a new world dawning, sun burns fog, burns all naysayers, love, like a child, comes wrapped in layers…” “Happy Go Lazy” hearkens back to the ‘90s with its loping beat and whistled refrain, the lyrics offering a gentle smack to the shiftless: “No, I’m not listening, your friends are correct, I got zero ambition and I want your respect.” That leads nicely into “A Life Preserved,” a song of gratitude that rises on a grand melody and Furler’s terrific drum work. Taylor sounds phenomenal on this song, sinking his teeth into the tune, and truly letting loose right at the end.
And it probably took you longer to read my song-by-song description of those 10 tracks than it would to listen to them. In 33 minutes, Taylor and his band burn through one of the most consistent sets of material I’ve heard this year. Had those 10 songs come on a disc by themselves, they would have been one of the finest pure rock records of 2014. But they didn’t. The final track on Goliath is the most ambitious, and the least congruous. “Comedian” is six and a half minutes of ever-building power, supporting one of Taylor’s most oblique and fascinating lyrics. The song is like a word game, and parsing its meaning takes many, many listens. (I’m not quite there.) While the music is as simple as a lot of things the National has done, the force of the lyrics makes this one of Taylor’s best songs.
“Comedian” is at least partially about how the industry sees him, but it’s also about what God finds funny: “Man makes plans, God laughs.” He begins thusly: “The saints came marching in this morning and they marched back out the door, wholly offended, no pun intended…” Thus begins a series of tricky turns of phrase, many ending with “no pun intended,” leading to this: “The King and I began a feud that time will not erase until he wipes that omniscient smile off his face.” There are so many ways to take that line, but the anger of it carries into the next bit: “Didn’t I thank you from the dais, didn’t I do you good? Didn’t I take up all your crosses that were made of balsa wood? I’ve kept my demons pent up so long the devil himself lost track, I’ve since repented, no pun intended…” I’ve come to think of that as the only instance in which, while the pun exists, one is truly unintended. But as I said, it’s a puzzle box, and I’m still figuring it out.
I would have been perfectly happy with another couple songs that kept the quality of the first 10. But “Comedian” is something special, and after 20 years, it’s the song that I am most grateful for. That’s not to disparage the rest of Goliath, which is, all told, one of the year’s best records. I hope this is the start of a renaissance, the first salvo in a long and wonderful second act from an artist I have admired since I was a teenager. Even though Goliath was worth the wait, I hope the next one comes out before I’m 60.
Welcome back, Steve. Thanks for a great record, and for everything you’ve meant to this middle-aged former Jesus kid. You’ve still got it.
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Next week, it’s finally OK to listen to Christmas music. So we will. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.