Chip Taylor,
A Song I Can Live With
(Train Wreck, 2016)

Chip Taylor sings, sort of, in the kind of whispery growl favored more and more by male Hollywood actors. That voice does get your attention, and it helps that it usually sounds pretty gloomy, too, even when the sentiments are not. The vocals, which you might call lived-in, are as much spoken as sung to simple, stark folkish pop melodies. These happen in front of a small band -- mostly guitars, keyboards and bass.

As with Taylor's more recent work (see my review in this space on 20 August 2016 for details, also for information on his interesting background), after the cessation some years ago of his association with singer/fiddler Carrie Rodriguez, A Song I Can Live With flirts dangerously with self-parody. Singer-songwriters are often accused of gazing at the world through their navels. Taylor would give the most solipsistic a run for their self-absorption.

For example, "Until It Hurts" starts with Taylor at the gym listening to music through earphones on a cold day, specifically on Jan. 11, 2016. He laments David Bowie's death ("a regular good guy," we are assured) the day before, and this gets him to thinking about another lately passed musician, Lou Reed, and this brings to mind a conversation Eric Andersen (longtime folksinger-songwriter and Dylan contemporary) told him about, in which a Taylor song had come up for praise over a meal Andersen and Reed enjoyed.

Now, this could be ludicrous or offensive, and if you want it to be, you can make it out that way. To me, though, it exposes a sort of defensive insecurity I've noticed in some successful songwriters, and I'm sure it's as likely true of artists of any kind. Taylor compounds the effect by citing a Reed quote that might suggest less true modesty than its false equivalent. You might even cringe a little. And then, yes, there's the song ("Los Alamitos Story") where Taylor is watching his favorite television shows. Still....

Improbably, Taylor seems like, well, a good guy, if not necessarily a regular one. He may have a lot more money than you and I will ever lay claim to, and he has a famous brother and celebrity friends. Even so, he adores his wife of many years, Joan, subject of multiple songs (here, to the point lest you miss it, "Joan Joan Joan"), and he is a compassionate observer in an era when millions of fellow citizens, and an occupant of the White House, want to make America mean again. Kindness imbues Taylor's songs and recitations, and if there were a time in our lives when kindness is not to be undervalued, it's surely now.

Back in the 1960s Taylor wrote the monster-hit rock tune "Wild Thing." If you know that, you may wonder if "Crazy Girl" doesn't revisit the same woman, only recalled from a gentler, grown-up perspective. The theme of the first song -- the word starts with "f" -- is immediately discernible from its title. This time, though, the refrain goes, "She was a crazy girl, crazy girl/ She was nice." Taylor mentions "my song" and about an "end to all of that." I don't pretend to read Taylor's mind, but it's easy to interpret this as a kind of apology in which a sex object gets her due as a fully rounded woman who, besides being a likable human being, also "could sing." This is a genuinely touching piece of work.

The title A Song I Can Live With is a fair characterization of the content. Each cut concerns something or somebody in the singer's life. Though Taylor has written a few songs of social comment (environmental issues, refugees), they aren't here. Rather, these continue a late-life project, the filling of what appears to be an aural journal of his life as aging New Yorker, musician, husband, brother and friend.

He is, to cite the obvious, that often-derided phenomenon, the confessional singer-songwriter. As often abused as honored, the theory is that the personal is to be transformed into the universal; in other words, you will use your own experience to communicate with others who have undergone the same, or something close to it. Hank Williams exemplifies the practice at its most gloriously realized. At the opposite extreme Taylor's art is Taylor-specific. One has the impression of a man wading through a stream of consciousness in whose waters the stuff of his years flows. The songs feel, lyrically and aurally, as if muttered to himself.

Yet, oddly, surely attesting to his unique power as a writer and performer, the songs here draw one in -- at, it must be said, varying depths of immersion. On the other hand, I know exactly what "Young Brooks Flow Forever" is about. I thank Taylor for the words and the song.

music review by
Jerome Clark

25 February 2017

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