There is a kind of metaphorical crossroads, an infinitely fertile tract of land where blues, folk and country music meet and combine, and where new genres and musical styles are born and set loose into the world to do their thing. Some of the greats of popular music have congregated here over time: Bob Dylan has dabbled in all three forms, simultaneously and individually; Richard Thompson, John Martyn, Bert Jansch and even Led Zeppelin have approached blues from folkier angles, while American artists from Leadbelly and Odetta to Richie Havens and Eric Bibb have come at it from the other side. Of course, you could categorise these artists endlessly and arbitrarily, but what links them is a willingness to knowingly re-appropriate historically important musical forms, to take old songs and push them in new directions. Country, blues and folk are all social forms of music, and they grow and change as societies grow and change.
Of course, the crossroads is a long-standing symbol in the blues tradition: a symbol of death, for sure (death is at the heart of many great songs), but also a symbol of travel, of leaving home or returning home, of choices made, right or wrong. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the cross stands for rebirth as much as it stands for death. Each of these themes is, to some extent, explored in Flood & Burn, the new album by London-born singer-songwriter Sean Taylor. Even the album’s title alludes to elemental powers that are both destructive and regenerative. Taylor counts among his influences some of the great songwriters of the twentieth century: Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits. He records in Austin, Texas with an impressive roster of session musicians, and the results are often stunning. Album opener Codeine Dreams, for example, is slow-burning and hallucinatory, a pitch-black meditation on narcotic oblivion, with waves of saxophone courtesy of Joe Morales. Structurally it bears little resemblance to traditional song forms: there is a jazziness to it that brings to mind Tom Waits in his looser moments. And Taylor’s singing – a rough, smoky voice that reeks of barrooms and loneliness – also recalls Waits.
A Good Place To Die is much closer to the traditions of blues and country. The lyrics are deceptively dark, almost in the vein of Nick Cave, but the narrative songs of Dylan are the closest comparison, thanks to propulsive drums and atmospheric stabs of Hammond organ, both played by Mark Hallman, whose production and all-round musicianship across the album is vital for the overall sound.
The Cruelty Of Man rails against the modern world in general (the invasiveness of technology) and the music industry in particular (Simon Cowell is singled out for some well-deserved criticism). The resigned shuffle of the drums and an unexpectedly poignant trumpet solo from Ephraim Owens give the song more emotional depth than anything Cowell could ever hope to produce.
Taylor is capable of levity too: witness the lightness of touch and positive message of Troubadour, which puts a positive spin on the rootless life of the musician. Here Roscoe Beck – known for his work with Leonard Cohen and Jennifer Warnes – provides double bass. Run To The Water, with its fluid slide guitar and swampy harmonica, is a slice of contemporary blues that would sit comfortably on one of Bob Dylan’s albums, and Life Goes On showcases Taylor’s skill as an acoustic guitarist in the mould of Jansch or Martin Simpson (though unlike those artists his singing owes more to the American tradition than to British folk).
On the album’s title track, Tom Waits is once again conjured, along with more recent artists like The Felice Brothers. The live recording, Hallman’s banjo and Andre Moran’s slide guitar give the song added authenticity, and the distinctly Old Testament themes of the lyrics provide a discernible link with old-time blues and country. Beautiful Mind unfolds slowly, with Taylor’s voice at its most soulful. It is a stunning exploration of the psyche of the ‘troubled artist’, its sinuous electric guitar reminiscent of quieter moments of the highly underrated Mark Knopfler. It is proof that Taylor is adept in multiple styles.
Taylor plays it straight in Bad Case Of The Blues, which does pretty much what it says on the tin, name-checking the notoriously naughty Charles Bukowski and Townes Van Zandt in a good old-fashioned story of loved turned bad. But even here there are some surprises: most notably Hana Piranha’s violin, which weaves in and out of the song like a suggestion of redemption which only comes in the following song, Until The End Of Time. This is the album’s most positive and upbeat moment, both musically and lyrically. Its tunefulness comes across like a dustier, duskier Tom Petty, with a perky combination of lap steel and mandolin keeping the country flame alive.
The subject matter of Heartbreak Hotel makes it a fitting choice for the album’s only cover version. There are fewer successful covers of this song than you might imagine – possibly because John Cale’s incredible, artily gothic re-workings have put most other efforts to shame – but with Taylor the hotel is well and truly open for business again. Full of breathy harmonica and Eliza Gilkyson’s subtly sultry backing vocals; it becomes very much Taylor’s song. It is followed up by Better Man, the album’s final track and perhaps its most extraordinary. Guest bassist Danny Thompson of Pentangle fame puts in a typically stunning performance, and Hana Piranha once more proves a worthy co-star with some brisk violin licks. The song itself is another distinctively moody examination of the difficulties of life as a musician and the relationship between the singer, his craft and his audience.
As listeners, we must hope that these difficulties don’t become too much for Sean Taylor. Flood & Burn is his eighth album in just over ten years, and he continues to get better and better. It is a highly accomplished and well-rounded addition to what is already a hugely impressive body of work, and Taylor has quietly become one of our most valuable and unique songwriters.
Flood & Burn is released on 3rd February 2017
Order Flood & Burn (Limited Autographed Art-Card Edition) via ProperMusic here: www.propermusic.com/product-details/Sean-Taylor-Flood-and-Burn-244093
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Photo Credit: Peter Robinson