Chip Taylor,
Unglorious Hallelujah
(Train Wreck/Back Porch, 2006)

Among the most able songcrafters around, Chip Taylor -- who usually records as half of a duo with the much younger Carrie Rodriguez (who recently released a splendid solo album, Seven Angels on a Bicycle, under Taylor's assured artistic guidance) -- is so full to bursting with creative energy these days that he's issued a two-CD set consisting solely of his own songs.

Before embarking on a career as a singer-songwriter, Taylor was James Wesley Voight, brother to actor Jon and volcanologist Barry, and composer of radio hits "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning." Unglorious Hallelujah's "James Wesley Days" looks backward, more bitterly than sweetly, to his life as an untamed young man, but it's open-ended enough to remind many of the rest of us of our individual misspent youths. At his most effective, Taylor writes out of his own experience to call up universal sentiments and experiences.

CD1, "Unglorious Hallelujah," takes on a range of subject matters, focusing in particular on the intersection between political events and moral choices. CD2, "Red Red Rose," is addressed to lovers past (specifically an ex-wife) and present. While not bad, the latter is surely the lesser of the two discs. One couplet, sung in the leering voice of a panties fetishist, may creep you out (it certainly creeps me out): "I'd like to buy you underwear, underwear / For under there." Not exactly Taylor's most refined moment, let us say. The other songs on #2 are all right, but for the most part fairly ordinary in subject matter and, to some tastes including my own, little more than modestly pleasurable diversions in the fashion of a lesser Jesse Winchester album.

The first disc is the one that will draw listeners in and hold them fast. The finest songs are superior ones indeed, perhaps none more so than the impressive title piece. Extraordinarily original, profoundly troubling and ultimately (and unexpectedly) inspiring, it narrates the progress of a planned act of hideous violence first in the voice of the deadly instruments, then in the heart of the would-be killer. If there is any song like it, it has escaped me. In a time of appalling slaughter and bloodshed, of murder and madness (officially sponsored and other), it manages to express an unsentimental hope for the final triumph of conscience and mercy.

Taylor has a gift for spare, appealing melodies, anchored in folk music, and a worn yet warm baritone, and for lyrics that, at their best, are the equal of anybody's. Other highlights include "This Old Town," "Christmas in Jail" and "Michael's Song." "Thursday Night, Las Vegas Airport" is a hard-hitting autobiographical memoir of what Taylor was doing the night Bush's Iraq adventure premiered. The faux-trad ballad "Jacknife," another memorable anti-violence parable, is set in the Civil War. "Hallelujah, Boys," on the other hand, is a generally witless political commentary with all the depth of insight one expects to overhear if within unfortunate earshot of a barstool philosopher. It brings to recall an early, mediocre John Prine tune. On the other hand, a song that first seems rather dumb -- "What Would Townes Say About That?" -- grows oddly smarter and subtler each time one hears it.

If not every cut is a tour de force, Taylor is far from just another mope singer-songwriter. His most accomplished material -- and the present CD showcases only the most recent of it -- is in its own noble class. The CD is worth it for "Unglorious Hallelujah" alone. It's the sort of song that plays on long after the CD no longer spins, lingering in mind and heart to affirm decency and hope in an evil age.

by Jerome Clark
21 October 2006

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