The last time I reviewed Sean Taylor, it was for the release of Chase The Night, a superb record that reached into the heart of city life, or more specifically London life. If that album was ‘the who’ and ‘the where’, then you might call The Only Good Addiction Is Love ‘the how’ and ‘the why’. Here Sean turns away from the day to day and towards something intangible, the creative spark. What inspires us and why? He’s seeking out the artistic aesthetic and the poetry and logic of ‘truth in beauty, beauty in truth’. It’s the rarefied stuff of high and heady terrain, with the broadest possible horizons, yet Sean manages to capture moments, fleeting feelings and the sheer sense of wonderment that are instantly identifiable and empathetic, giving us a firm footing on a potentially vertiginous journey. As Sean unveils his passions for Lorca, Rothko, Kerouac, Yeats and more we recognise the path, as these are steps we have taken ourselves, albeit perhaps in pursuit of different targets.
While the last record paid a heartfelt tribute to the sprawling metropolis, a love letter if you will, weaving Sean’s life into a mythology of time and place, family, community, friendships, love affairs, it all played out against the incessant thrum, directly wired to the electric grid and feeding off the buzz. Travelling beyond personal statement and biography, however, there were suggestions that high voltage comes with an undercurrent and the view from some of Sean’s vantage points might just show you what Iggy referred to as, “The city’s ripped backside.” Either way, Chase The Night offered an holistic, sophisticated Cinerama, with Sean’s poetry suggesting a sharp mind and further nuance created by the varied musical soundscape. Sean described it as the record he had always wanted to make, even so, the achievement must have exceeded even his expectations. The same must be said of The Only Good Addiction Is Love.
Once more the whole thing is brilliantly realised. It’s another album of, for the most part, deceptive simplicity, sparingly arranged without ever being stark. Sean has returned to The Congress House Studios in Austin, Texas, to work with Mark Hallman, who brings his multi-instrumental skill to the project as well as producing, mixing and mastering; it’s proved a fruitful working relationship. The last time around I interviewed Sean he talked enthusiastically about how Mark’s set up allowed him to work quickly, almost spontaneously, with the ability to go back and fix things that need a tweak once the raw ideas have been captured. This record feels alive in exactly that same way.
Sean has drawn regular comparisons with John Martyn and is not afraid to acknowledge his influence. Again, however, whilst there are elements of recognisable throwback about the sound here, with some of it even vaguely in keeping with Martyn’s riffing without ever tipping into anything obvious, there is nothing quite so straightforward as ‘sounds like…’ As with most other guitarists Sean has undoubtedly absorbed ideas for a number of forebears, but then deploys them in a way that is uniquely his own. Of course his smoky blur of a voice adds to the comparisons, although again Sean has surely defined his own style and deserves credit as such. You also have to factor in Danny Thompson, who worked so effectively with Martyn. Anyone who has seen Danny performing with Sean will have left with a feeling that they most certainly enjoy each other’s musical company, but will also perhaps appreciate that while Thompson has never simply stuck to one act, or even style, he has none the less picked each of his many projects with care. He plays with Sean because he wants to. Danny plays on two of the tracks and there are strings, with Hana Piranha’s violin and the cello of Brian Standefer. Mark Hallman introduces vocalist Noelle Hampton and her partner, the electric and slide guitarist Andre Moran, into the mix and also arranges brass for two songs, with Paul Deemer on trombone and Kevin Flatt on trumpet. Sean’s guitar playing, as always, is superb, but he also plays piano and organ, as does Mark, who also adds bass and percussion as well as his backing vocals. Sean has expressed pride in the music he has created here, but is also quick to praise the way the other players have forced him to raise his own game.
Anybody familiar with Sean will immediately relax into the opener and title track with its lovely descending guitar figure and hushed vocal tones. The Only Good Addiction Is Love is a phrase borrowed from the former president of Uruguay, Jose ‘Pepe’ Mujica. He is perhaps best known for eschewing the privileges of his position, refusing the presidential palace and instead living a life of humility and charity. If only there were more of his kind. But Sean isn’t referencing the man, just the idea, turning it into a bittersweet meditation, invoking his own obsessions and the way they are expressed through song. There’s a certain self-deprecating wit in lines like, “Pour out your heart on a Steinway grand,” and especially, “I asked Leonard Cohen what should I do.” There are steady patterns from the piano, gentle patter of percussion and finally, Hana’s violin to lead the song to its close with a blissful lament. It’s a beautiful piece, which to all intents is the default setting for the album.
As described above some of the songs make obvious allusion to some of Sean’s own artistic touchstones, while others seem to be more generalised in their quest, but either way, there is much to admire in Sean’s maturing song-craft. Of the former, we’ve already brought you Rothko as a track premiere on Folk Radio, which of course features Danny Thompson, whose deep, woody bass timbre brings an expansive jazziness, enhanced by the loose percussive hand drums, with just the merest hint of electric piano and double tracked vocals filling out the mix, above the gentle push of Sean’s guitar. Whether you have ever fallen under the titular painter’s spell or have your own ideas of great art, this song captures a profound feeling you will recognise. Interestingly Danny also plays on Moma, underpinning Sean’s tight percussive riff with more inventive, syncopated growling bass. The title naturally refers to the Museum Of Modern Art, but this reads more obliquely like a love or break up song, although the real object of Sean’s affections remains veiled and mysterious and deliciously ambiguous.
Lorca is a lovely guitar instrumental, with just a touch of Spanish flair and a wistful air, as Sean tries to capture the feelings that prompted a surge in his own creativity, after reading the poet Federico García Lorca. That same poet also crops up in the lyrics for the following Tienes Mi Alma En Tus Manos, which translates as, “You have my soul in your hands.” The song is inspired by the book The Power Of The Dog, which documents the horrors of the American war on drugs, although Sean has managed to find a small glimpse of the human spirit within it on the Mexican side of the conflict, amongst the starlit trails, music and illumination that Lorca offers.
There are other literary references, with the JJ Cale-ish groove of Desolation Angels deriving its title from Jack Kerouac’s novel and featuring Andre Moran’s lead guitar. Les Rouges Et Les Noirs, inspired by a Paul Klee painting could easily be about a painter’s contrasts, or the doomed romanticism of Julien Sorel as he attempts to balance the sacred and the secular, but is ultimately undone by the cynical world around him in Stendhal’s two volume epic, translated as The Crimson And The Black. There are hints of conflict in the chorus, “Les rouges et les noirs, Always conspire,” while the song plots a steady course over a steady descending chord sequence and Hanna’s violin again makes a telling contribution.
There are others songs however that are harder to pin down, but keep within the overall aesthetic. There’s the tight groove of Bad Light, the album’s only nod to the blues, with some some electric slide from Andre, but also finding a role for the cello to add to the drama and almost filmic feel as passions run high. Flesh And Mind is apparently based on a tuned down guitar, which results in a deeply resonant tone, while the track has a free jazzy vibe that makes me think of Astral Weeks.
There’s a surprise with the lush sound of We Can Burn, with the swelling brass adding to anthemic feel created by Sean at the piano. The brass is also there for the most obvious literary piece, The White Birds, which adapts Yeats’ poem turning it into a glorious closing song that sweeps and soars on pedal steel and picks up an urgent pace with a shuffling quick-fire beat. The words tumble and cascade marrying the birds riding the foaming waves to the very cosmos, as the fret and the fire of life is stilled by the buoyant bobbing to and fro.
If his last album had a very specific geography, this hugely ambitious record is an inward journey into the mystic that offers a road map to the soul of an artist at the top of his game. The Only Good Addiction Is Love tackles the indefinable, the abstract notions of inspiration and imagination, somehow finding the words, which when set to glorious melody, allow you to make sense of the intangible for yourself. The poet’s gift, the singer’s gift, the guitarist’s gift… Truth in beauty, beauty in truth… It’s all here in perfect balance.
Review by: Simon Holland
The Only Good Addiction Is Love is Out Now
11 Jul – ALSAGER, Alsager Music Festival
25 Jul – ALSTON, Alston Moor Festival
05 Aug – ALDERSHOT, Midnight Special Blues Club
29 Aug – KENT, Small World festival
30 Aug – CORNWALL, Cornwall Folk Festival
For full details of Sean’s extensive European Tour visit: http://www.seantaylorsongs.com/
Photo Credit: Kim Ayres