In Brief: Even though this is Taylor’s first studio album in two decades, it’s got enough lyrical wit and musical bite to feel like it picks up right where he last left off with Squint. This is quality alternative rock that makes you think just as much as it makes you headbang. (And sometimes it steps on your toes in the process.)
TWENTY. FREAKIN’. YEARS. That’s how long Steve Taylor‘s fans have been waiting for the man to put out a new studio album. I guess technically it’s been twenty-one, since Squint was released in 1993. But since I was brand new to most popular forms of music in general way back in those days, and 1994 was the year I first stumbled upon that most excellent record, which stood in sharp contrast to the mostly squeaky clean, Christian pop music I was getting into at the time. Taylor was not at all subtle about his Christian beliefs, but he was equally unsubtle about calling out hypocrisy within the church and exposing rather stupid things that our subculture had led us to believe about our own faith. “Jesus Is For Losers” was my first true impression of the man, and that song title alone was enough to make me a little defensive, wondering where he got off making such a statement if he claimed to be a Christian. The man had a razor wit, even when examining his own flaws, and that song encapsulated a lot of the lessons that I would spend the next several years learning over and over, as I still erroneously tried to be better than those other, supposedly less faithful people that I looked down upon, to make sure I gave God enough reasons to love me and not forsake me. Songs like that one, “Smug”, and “The Finish Line” appealed to me on an intellectual level, because I wasn’t used to sarcasm and stark confessional lyrics being tools that could actually help us to understand our relationship with God better. i was used to straightforward, goodie-two-shoes Bible lessons with conveniently catchy verses and choruses. Or just nice generic love songs that happened to be about Jesus. Taylor was hardly the first to make offbeat alternative rock music with a Gospel message, but he was one of the most authentic, and his tendency to pull no punches got him in trouble more than once (mostly in the 80s, long before I was even aware of his existence). It didn’t hurt that the music was awesome, either. It was an edgy genre roulette of everything from grunge to rock opera to (admittedly somewhat ill-advised) forays into rap and reggae. As a person who claimed to appreciate “all kinds of music” at the time, he really put that claim to the test.
In the twenty years since, I’ve largely gravitated away from the “nice church boy” brand of Christian rock, and now for the most part I prefer mainstream and indie music, with my tastes in Christian music being limited to the handful of artists who strive to be more authentic and honest with the lyrics and their musical style, even if it’s out of step with what Christian radio expects of them. Jars of Clay would be the best example, though musically they’re much milder than Taylor. Even though I’ve always viewed Newsboys as a bit of a youth group band, Taylor was at least partially responsible for lot of their best lyrics back in the day, and there was a time during which I’d have put a lot of their most thought-provoking lyrics in that same “authentic” category. (Now they’re a completely different band unworthy of even bearing the name. But that’s beside the point.) While Taylor was a big influence during that important phase in my life, both in terms of my musical tastes and my spiritual growth, his own music was largely absent from the decades that followed. He just plain wasn’t making any. He became something of a renaissance man, forming the short-lived label Squint Records, which helped to boost bands like Sixpence None the Richer, Burlap to Cashmere, and Chevelle into the spotlight, and he brought his directing skills from the many music videos he had helmed into a few attempts at success on the silver screen, most of which either bombed or didn’t even get released. I think I was one of about twenty people combined who actually saw The Second Chance and Blue Like Jazz. I actually really enjoyed both films. It was in the creation of that latter film, a very loose adaptation of a book he had wanted to bring to the big screen for a while, that Taylor started making music with some old friends, initially as a way to kickstart some funds for the film, but eventually his ad hoc band took on a life of its own.
So here we are, in late 2014, long past the point where most of us would have given up on hearing anything but the occasional soundtrack appearance from Taylor, and he’s heading up the newly christened Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil, who has independently released a record called Goliath, which kicks just about as much butt as its way-older predecessor. The band is made up of Taylor himself on lead vocals, former Newsboys drummer and lead singer Peter Furler, guitarist Jimmy Abegg (astute fans who came of age in the 80s and 90s might recognize him from Vector or Rich Mullins’ “Ragamuffin Band”), and bassist John Mark Painter (best known as one half of the duo Fleming & John. Those names are a total blast from the past – and I wasn’t quite cool enough to have been intimately familiar with most of those artists except for the Newsboys back in the day, but if you were really into the alternative side of Christian rock back then, this is probably a total dream team. It’s weird, because there’s enough musical edge and gleeful dissonance on this one to make me think it could have been put out in the late 90s and it wouldn’t have felt at all out of place, and yet it never seems dated or mindlessly nostalgic in the context of the 2010s. It’s probably because Taylor always liked to color outside the lines of what was trendy anyway, instead pulling inspiration from his own pantheon of offbeat influences from his own formative years.
Lyrically, Taylor hasn’t missed a beat either. The music is certainly a collaborative effort between some excellent players, but the lyrics are pretty much all Taylor, skewering such things as our laziness and herd mentality one minute, and then turning around and offering serious and somber thoughts on the undeserved grace of God and a semi-mischievous entertainer’s role within the music industry or the church body as a whole the next. At 39 minutes and change, these eleven tracks never seem to overstay their welcome, with the front half of the record in particular breezing right on by, definitely influence from the alt-rock philosophy of “make your point and then get the heck out of Dodge without making a lot of fuss about it”. A few tracks later on in the record get a little more space to breathe as they slowly unfold, so there’s a pretty decent balance between the hectic, harder-egded rock stuff, the deranged but danceable poppy stuff, and the more serious, meditative tracks that show up at the end and linger for a bit longer than what came before. The results are nearly perfect. The album never seems to drag when I listen to it, and despite the stylistic diversity and the sometimes chaotic sounds on display, none of it feels out of place. Taylor’s raspy ramblings may be a difficult taste to acquire if you’re not familiar with any of his work from back in the day, but since I spend a lot of my time nowadays listening to lush folk/rock-type acts and synth-heavy indie pop groups mining their childhood nostalgia for all it’s worth, this little hot potato of a record acts as the perfect counterpoint to all that. Hands down, it’s one of the best things to have come out in the year 2014. And I hope I’d have the good sense to recognize that even if I’d never heard a note of Taylor’s music before Goliath showed up.
1. Only a Ride
I love pretty much everything about the lead single on this project, from it’s purposefully dissonant guitar riffs, to all of its manic yelps and yowls, to its rapidfire, barreling drums, to the way it crams so much into less than two and a half minutes of airtime and disappears as suddenly as it slammed its way into my consciousness. Here Taylor compares our attitude that we’re entitled to be entertained to a rollercoaster that’s… well, let’s say it’s just a little less than OSHA compliant. He insists it’s “only a ride” and it’s all in good fun but his screams of “Why am I bleeding?!” and “Where did my head go?!” suggest otherwise.
2. Double Negative
Jimmy Abegg opens this one with a haunting, Eastern-tinged guitar melody. It’s a great way to pique our interest, though I feel that the song itself suffers when the verse gets going and the rhythm keeps doubling back on itself as Taylor sings. I suppose it’s a clever idea on paper – the last word of each measure sort of becomes the first beat of the next. I’m usually a fan of odd time signatures; I just don’t feel that the overall mood of the song gels with it in this case. This one contains some of Taylor’s most mystifying lyrics – he seems to be playing the part of an extremely cynical character who has lost all of his hope and faith, but I haven’t quite worked out the point of telling his story. Lots of clever quips abound, my favorite among them being “Is that a yawn, or are you ready to bite?”, and the closing line of the song, “Bells are ringing, is it Easter or the start of an earthquake?”
The title track, as you might have surmised, is an ode to the underdog facing impossible odds. It’s actually a bit of a fight song, maybe even a taunt, as Taylor calls out the haughty giant over an ominous bass line which eventually gives way to a stomping rhythm. Later they bring in a horn section, as if this were the band’s warped idea of a halftime show at a football game. “It ain’t a threat, we’re coming to get ya”, Taylor sneers, and the song culminates in several menacing shouts of “The bigger they come, the harder they fall!” Fun stuff.
Taylor has described this short little burst of ambitious energy as having two forefathers – Prince and The Pixies. I’m not super-familiar with either artist, but I know enough to figure out where he nicked this song’s cute little acoustic riff from Prince, and its minimalistic funk-rock beat certainly owes a bit to the Purple One as well. As for the Pixies, being one of alternative rock’s earliest influences, I can only guess that the twisted, almost gratingly off-key guitar part that acts as a slave to that beat was their contribution. The result is an intentionally silly alliance of sounds that mix like oil and water, resulting in either the most catchy or most irritating song he’s ever written. (I fall on the “catchy” side of the fence, personally, but I can bet it’ll give my wife a headache.) Appropriately enough, the lyrics are about a deranged fellow who truly believes he’s going to build a rocket in his backyard that is capable of dreaming the moon. Taylor uses this as an analogy for his own ambition as an artist, without which he’d never have accomplished some of the highlights of his career as a musician/director/author/auteur/jack-of-all-trades-in-general, but it’s something that he realized has led him to fall flat on his face equally as often. The closing lyrics are probably my favorite lines in the entire song: “I took steel and a feather/And welded them together/I took hellfire and ice/And made them play nice.”
A misplaced sense of entitlement seems to be one of Taylor’s favorite lyrical subjects, and here he tackles it again, this time taking aim at social media and the entire parallel lives that we live out on the Internet. It’s probably a bit of a knock on the news media as well, considering how thoroughly he skewers our apparent desire to get every ugly detail of the private lives of famous people – or perhaps to thoughtlessly give away such details about ourselves: “Rubberneck, click go/You got a right to know/Every ugly detail/Get it retail.” The chorus, which is more in the “manic screaming” vein of “Only a Ride”, drives it home, comparing this insatiable need to know everything about everybody to those annoying people who jam up traffic just to gawk at the gory details of a car accident. The lyrics come fast and furious, and just as I’m busy thinking how glad I am that I’m not as stupid as all of those gluttons for mindless entertainment, the simple phrase “Hey you, click here” reminds me that I’ve fallen prey to my fair share of inane clickbait while skimming through my Facebook feed every morning.
6. The Sympathy Vote
Really fuzzy bass, a stuttering beat, and a down-and-dirty horn section are the key characteristics of this politically charged number, which is written from the point of view of a sleazy – or at least incredibly pragmatic – politician, who knows exactly the right things to say to rile up his voter base and get them shouting louder than the opposition. I don’t know what Taylor’s personal politics are, but he’s calling out a habit that I think both sides are guilty of, which emphasizes “picking tribes” over seeking out the best, most honest answers to the difficult questions of how and by whom our country should be run and what laws should be made. It’s easier to go with the herd mentality on this one, and assume those fools who vote for the party that happens to be your sworn mortal enemy are always just plain wrong, and never give them an inch or concede a valid point when they bring one up. Taylor sings this one with an almost sadistic glee, which lets us into the mindset of a character who knows in his heart that his party isn’t always right, but who conceals that knowledge from his fanbase because winning votes is just plain easier than admitting the other guy is right sometimes. This is one heck of a noisy song, what with everything going on, but it’s one of my favorites, and I was surprised to learn that it was tacked on to the album at the eleventh hour, because it seems to fit right in with all of the inspired madness around it.
7. Standing in Line
Taylor doesn’t write autobiographical songs all that often (a fact which was undoubtedly missed by all the folks who whipped themselves into a fury over “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good” all those years) ago, but Squint‘s “Sock Heaven” serves as a rare example, and this surprisingly dance-y little tune is very much in that same vein. It’s probably the least abrasive thing on the record, with the guitars and drums evoking more of a subdued, disco-rock sort of atmosphere (which I suppose is a genre Peter Furler knows a thing or two about), and Taylor singing in a much more introspective tone of voice, setting aside his snarkier tendencies for just a few minutes. The lyrics seem to address the long gap during which Taylor made little to no music, describing it as though he were waiting on a sign from God that he was meant to keep doing it, and not just as a way to make a living. His intent to only make art if it’s for the right reasons comes across as a less farcical version of the ambition described in “Moonshot”: “And I’d pursue you through any hell/I’d swim upstream ’til I find the source/Dam the Mississippi and change its course/If it was up to me/If it was mine to turn.”
8. In Layers
The grinding, jarring guitar riffs at the beginning of this one immediately let you know we’re back in take-no prisoners mode. The stomping, syncopated rhythm is just about perfect for a song that appears to be about a group of belligerent hypocrites gleefully stomping on the freedom of everyone around them. Whether they’re motivated by politics, money, racism, or something else, it’s pretty clear that their tactics are simply to amass strength in numbers and shout down anyone who dares to poke a hole in their facade of might making right. The line “Good old boys, crank up the white noise” is just loaded with potential double meanings. Thankfully the noise that the band makes throughout this song, including the skronking horn section that comes in midway through, is far too colorful to be simply described as “white”.
9. Happy Go Lazy
Man, they really like the horns on this album, don’t they? I don’t mind that. It gives a lot of these songs more of a tongue-in-cheek tone, as if to say that while Taylor has some serious issues to point out, he’s not humorless in his approach. A little bit of whistling along with the jumpy guitar licks here help to drive that mood home. Here he tackles plain old laziness, and he almost ends up painting his slovenly protagonist in a sympathetic light, as if he’s accomplished enough in his life and he just wants to go quietly into retirement: “No, I’m not listening, your friends are correct/I’ve got zero ambition and I want your respect.” For a second I’m tempted to think: Is that really so bad? But then I remember that the Christian faith isn’t a career. You never “retire” from it. So you’re always either growing and being pushed to change in at least semi-uncomfortable ways, or else you’re going backwards.
10. A Life Preserved
This song was actually the genesis of the band, since Taylor pulled his buddies together back in 2012 to record this one for the soundtrack to Blue Like Jazz. (I vaguely remember hearing Taylor’s voice singing over the closing credits, but since I don’t expect Taylor to be Joss Whedon, I didn’t stick around for all of ’em.) He describes it as his “Gospel” song, not so much genre-wise (it’s much more straight-ahead wrong, without any of the usual sarcastic curveballs he’s known for), but in terms of lyrical content. In his own quirky language (the song starts with “Bobbing for air, I’m back again”, which is a wonderfully perplexing lyrical hook if I’ve ever heard one), he conveys a genuine sense of gratitude upon realizing all over again how shallow and meaningless was the life that he was saved from, and how he didn’t do anything to deserve being saved from it; it’s just what God does. The words “reverence” and “Steve Taylor” often don’t seem to fit in the same sentence, but here they go perfectly hand-in-hand, which is a great reminder that for all of his finger-wagging and nose-thumbing, it’s mostly directed at Christians who fail to represent Christ well (himself included sometimes). None of it’s directed at God. He may be rehashing the most basic lesson of Christianity here, but then there are no new truths, just unique individuals trying to express their testimony in their own personal language. We need more of that in “Christian” music, and less falling back on the cliches.
The album’s final track is its longest, and if I know anything about Steve Taylor from past experience, it’s that I can expect the rulebook (not that there’s much of one to begin with) to be thrown out at the end of an album. Instead of going as over-the-top insane as he did on Squint‘s “Cash Cow”, we’re treated to a slow, brooding meditation on his role as the court jester of Christian rock, one which he started writing back in the 90s, but that only fully came together in recent years. Clearly this has been bugging him for a while. Painter’s one-note bass line and the sparse piano chords may get this one off to a slow start for some, but it puts the story front and center, and once again, he’s got a great lyrical hook to start us off with: “The saints came marching in this morning/And they marched back out the door wholly offended/No pun intended.” It amuses me greatly that a subject such as humor could be tackled with such a serious tone to it, but it pretty well sums up the audience’s discomfort with the grave and the frivolous butting right up against each other in so many of his songs. Some comedians tell harmless jokes; others hit close to home and reveal uncomfortable truths about us as we titter nervously, trying to hide that discomfort. The Church has historically responded poorly to that sort of wit, especially in the earlier years when televangelists were denouncing Christian rock every chance they got. So there’s a ton of baggage to unpack here, and most of it happens over that quiet, barely-changing combo of piano and bass. You know to expect a big explosion at the end, as if Taylor’s relieved to finally get it all off his chest, but it comes after an eerie bridge in which a woman’s voice sings: “Man makes plans, God laughs.” Suddenly there’s an almost Shakespearean sort of weight on this song. (Or at least a Depeche Mode-ian one. Though in this case, God’s sense of humor is a much healthier one than ours.) It may not be the most musically grabby thing on the record, but it packs a huge punch and it would be the perfect note for Taylor to go out on if he were to announce his retirement tomorrow. (By all accounts, that won’t be happening, as The Perfect Foil seems to already have plans for another record. Of course I’m stoked!)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Only a Ride $2
Double Negative $1
The Sympathy Vote $1.75
Standing in Line $1.75
In Layers $1.25
Happy Go Lazy $1.25
A Life Preserved $1.75
Steve Taylor: Lead vocals
Peter Furler: Drums, backing vocals
Jimmy Abegg: Guitar
John Mark Painter: Bass
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