Phrases like “renaissance man” and “quadruple threat” might seem a tad hyperbolic in reference to a largely unknown pop artist, but when a songwriter, record producer, filmmaker and showman like Steve Taylor emerges from two decades of relative musical silence with one of the most interesting rock records of the year, normal words fail.
After a decade pushing limits and bothering gatekeepers as an alternative Christian artist in the ’80s, Taylor decided to let the “real” music industry beat up on him for a change. He formed Chagall Guevara with some of the best musicians in Nashville and signed with MCA. While that band earned excellent reviews and thrilled fans, the required commercial success never materialized. After releasing the solo project Squint in 1993, Taylor mostly retired as a musical artist and re-invented himself as a record executive by launching Squint Records. Sixpence None The Richer broke through with the Taylor-produced global hit “Kiss Me,” but he later received a pink slip from his own label. He went back to his creative first love: making music videos and movies. In 2012 he wrote, produced and directed the film version of Blue Like Jazz, the cinematic equivalent of every other piece of work he had done. “Perfectly Tayloresque” is how I described it at the time. “It’s so thoughtful for him to give Christian bookstores something to boycott again after all these years.”
Over the last few years, under cover of darkness, Taylor pulled together another musical dream team and began woodshedding new tunes under the moniker Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil. John Mark Painter, Peter Furler and Jimmy Abegg form the best band Taylor has yet fronted. No three-piece should sound this good. A recent set I caught at Los Angeles’ famous Whisky a Go Go proved that their chops are not limited to the studio. The band’s Kickstarter-funded debut, Goliath, releases on Nov. 18.
Goliath careens through 11 tracks without an ounce of fat. Taylor’s sarcastic sense of humor is well-known, but as in all great comedy, there are thoughtful moments of self-awareness sprinkled between the gags. Taylor and his foils comment on the nuances and challenges of personal integrity in the midst of a culture that worships grandiosity, scandal, comfort and individualism. From the punky energy of the opening cut, “Only A Ride,” through to the epic closer, “Comedian,” Goliath is as carefully crafted as anything Taylor has sent his hand to.
The band re-purposes new wave, disco, classic rock and modern alternative elements in ways that would sound completely contrived if they weren’t so flawlessly executed. “Standing In Line” gets all Broken Bells on us, while “In Layers” would fit on David Bowie’s latest. “Double Negative” becomes the quirky theme song for the four fingers pointing back at Taylor when he takes his aim, and “Moonshot” channels ’80s Prince with its sweetly optimistic tribute to a kid launching a rocket to the moon straight from his heart.
As has always been the case, Taylor is far more interested in using music to provoke thought, wonder, chuckles and sighs than in providing simplistic answers to religious questions. Fortunately, with the old walls separating artists of faith from the “real world” in rubble - walls Taylor and his compatriots have been striving to dismantle for over three decades - there is nothing keeping mainstream audiences from discovering one of the most fascinating, satisfying and under-appreciated pop artists of the last 30 years. Unlike when he debuted in 1983, his modern Goliath is no longer the artifice of industry or the pharisaical demands of church gatekeepers. The giant facing him down this time might just be the increasing chaos of obscurity and cultural distraction. Even so, here’s hoping this moonshot finds its mark.