Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Overlooked Albums - Lewis II

The story of the bright, young thing having their career prematurely ended is all too common. Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse and your name liveth forever more, as the posthumous deification of Jeff Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain et al demonstrate. Lewis Taylor’s career ended abruptly in 2006; no guns, drug overdoses or death shrouded in mystery for him, he just… quit.

It’s difficult to believe that someone could just sever all ties with music and leave the industry in such a fashion, but that’s exactly what Lewis Taylor did. No grand announcement or farewell tour, he simply slipped out the back door when no-one was looking. On the evidence of his body of work, second album Lewis II in particular, his departure is very much our loss.

Following a chequered decade or so on the periphery of the music industry, Lewis Taylor signed to Island in the mid-90s and was immediately heralded as the future of music. Tipped for the top by names as illustrious as David Bowie and Elton John, it seemed he couldn’t fail. Yet, fail he did - relatively speaking - as his first two albums didn’t sell as well as Island would’ve liked, who promptly dropped him. Taylor then self-released three more full-length records before his abrupt decampment.

Lewis Taylor’s work is impassioned, thrilling, heady and beautiful. It’s an admirably cohesive mix of rock, soul, pop and contemporary R&B which displays a seldom heard understanding of how music fits together and a keen eye for detail. If you had to compartmentalise it, you could probably describe it as neo-soul; in fact, Taylor’s music is not all that dissimilar to that of D’Angelo or Erykah Badu, but with a harder edge.

Lewis II is Lewis Taylor’s party record. It even opens with a track called Party, a six-minute slab of raw funk which slithers and slinks its way into your subconscious. Heavy, sporadic bass give the track an animal, sexual feel and although it’s ostensibly seduction music, it’s a million miles away from the unimaginative bedroom-eyed soul of R Kelly and his ilk.

Unappreciative ears could dismiss Lewis II as self-indulgent. Most of the tracks clock in at over five minutes, but that’s just testament to the sheer breadth of what’s going on: sultry vocals, squalling guitar solos, jazz piano and even the odd well-judged key change. It’s the kind of music that could easily descend into parody or schmaltz, but Lewis Taylor’s quality control ensures we’re always comfortably on the right side of the line.

Perhaps the most eye-catching of the eleven songs is Satisfied. Power ballads generally have a bad reputation (and, often, deservingly so), but this tears up the rule book. It’s a gorgeous, emotion-packed track that could easily be taken to the top of the charts by a Simon Cowell protégé. Note: this is very much a compliment.

Lewis Taylor could be called the soul Jeff Buckley (their vocal styles are somewhat similar) and Lewis II closes with a Buckley cover: Everybody Here Wants You from the unfinished Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. It’s perhaps an obvious choice of Buckley song, a paean to his partner of the time, Joan Wasser (aka Joan As Police Woman), but it’s tackled masterfully by Taylor. The restraint, longing and feeling of respect are just as poignant as in the original, and it’s gratifying to see it as part of a fully-realised album.

Truth be told, any of Lewis Taylor’s studio LPs could be considered an overlooked album, in the same way that Lewis Taylor is an overlooked artist. Everybody has artists they love that they wish more people were aware of, and Lewis Taylor is mine. The story of Lewis Taylor is a cautionary tale on the destructive nature of the music business and although it left him unfulfilled, we’re lucky to have his back catalogue - especially Lewis II - available to us.

I’d be fascinated to know what Lewis Taylor is up to these days. Perhaps he’s working as a session musician, maybe he’s a plumber, or he could live in the Bermuda Triangle with Richey Edwards and Shergar. Whatever he’s doing, we can only hope his life now provides him with the stability and happiness he couldn’t find previously. We may never know, but Lewis II remains; 55 minutes that documents the astonishing abilities and wonderful mind of the man who used to be Lewis Taylor.

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