If you had to compile a list of Steve Taylor‘s sharpest lyrics over his 30-plus-year career, most of that material would likely come from the period including and following his darkly comic 1987 album I Predict 1990, the moment when his writing, which was always incisive, developed nuance and humanity. Considerably fewer would come from the period prior — and especially not “Whatever Happened to Sin?” a song I choose to believe that Taylor has disavowed so that I can keep getting up in the morning. (Tellingly, he hasn’t played it live in 25 years, and to be honest I’m almost loath to bring it up here; I said similarly stupid things two decades or so ago, I just didn’t say them on a rock record.)
Personal politics aside, that division is crucial. Taylor’s first few records are shot through with a kind of sneering judgmentalism and salty self-satisfaction that sandbags even his more salient points. Looking back on them three decades later, he often comes off like the very preachers he’s rebuking. In his frequently brilliant later work, Taylor simply stands back and gives everyone enough punchlines to hang themselves. The best of his writing casts him as a kind of Jarvis Cocker of American Religion, pointing out its foibles with an acid tongue and sanding his sharp darts with wry, expertly-applied satire. It was a rare gift that was ill-served by the limiting confines of Christian music, where Taylor spent the bulk of his early career. One of the most rewarding things about the sole album he recorded with the group Chagall Guevara for MCA Records in 1991 was the opportunity to hear him turn that rapier wit on subjects outside the four walls of corporate Christianity.
It was an easy transition. Taylor’s best songs are the ones that center around the folly of man’s hubris and smugness, and that’s a theme that transcends church. I Predict‘s harrowing “Jim Morrison‘s Grave” is a bleak portrait of destructive narcissism. “The Lament of Desmond R.G. Underwood-Frederick IV,” from 1994′s Squint opens with a self-involved millionaire moaning, “The news of my impending death/ came at a really bad time for me.” And on “Smug” from that same record, he took a lancet to both the 24-hour media cycle (“we love being politically Koreshed”) and the nakedly capitalist culture of the megachurch, smirking, “Strike the proud pose of our country club brethren/ friendly as a tomb/ fragrant as the bottom of a locker-room broom.”
Goliath, Taylor’s first record in two decades, finds all of that wit still mercifully intact. The video for first single “Only a Ride” intercuts scenes from the 1980s schlock film Stunt Rock by the Tarantino-beloved director Brian Trenchard-Smith with grindhouse-style shots of the band performing while a giant wizard hurled fireballs into the audience — a nice complement to lyrics that lancet contemporary culture’s narcotic obsession with perpetual, destructive amusement. It’s like “The Entertainment” from Infinite Jest as filtered through a Richard Hell song. Throughout Goliath, Taylor makes his points through implication rather than explication, dropping hints and reveling in some of the knottiest, cleverest wordplay of his career. Lyrically, the album mostly favors the art-film, up-for-interpretation approach Taylor employed with Chagall Guevara, stringing clever phrases together like popcorn on a Christmas tree and letting the listener do the untangling.
It’s abetted by music that’s relentlessly tough. Squint counterbalanced toothy rockers with a few goofball genre exercises that ought to have been snipped from the final product (starting with the goony faux-reggae of “Easy Listening”), but everything here is wound tight and ready to pounce. Co-produced by Menomena’s Danny Seim, most of the songs build to moments of bug-eyed, bleeding-throat punk fury, Jimmy Abegg’s guitars scraping away nastily alongside Taylor’s sandpaper-and-strychnine voice. “In Layers,” easily the album’s nastiest outing, deploys one of Taylor’s craftiest rhyme schemes to date (“You fall in, you grin, you fake it/ something stirs and the perps can’t shake it”) and detonates with a chorus of “Lies! We’ve all been compromised!” while guitars rain down like comets. The ragged, roaring “Rubberneck,” slices and dices Taylor’s voice into bullet-like syllables (“Rubber check, bounce/ rubber soul, bounce/ where’d they go?/ If the soul weighs an ounce/ you can fetch it/ go on catch it if you can”), its righteous indignation slowly giving way to cold panic. And on “Double Negative,” which would be somewhere near the top of that list of Great Taylor Songs, he constructs dizzying, Möbius strip lyrics that reveal a little more meaning with each twist.
Goliath‘s loose theme is mankind’s increasing ridiculousness and maniacal obsession with the trivial. “Rubbernecker” employs accident gawkers as a coy metaphor for a societal fascination with the salacious; the protagonist of “The Sympathy Vote” — who’s either a politician or a rock star — dilutes his talking points until all that’s left are mealy non sequiturs. That kind of stuff in the hands of a clumsier songwriter can feel wearying and hectoring, but Taylor’s observations come off not so much as stuffy polemics as wry, Swiftian gallows humor — Pilgrim’s Progress staged by Armando Iannucci.
Abegg — who’s traditionally backed quieter artists like Charlie Peacock and Rich Mullins — has a reputation for being an inventive player, but his bracing, counterintuitive work throughout Goliath is one of the record’s greatest strengths. He bends and wails in sections that seem to want chords and laces lyrical leads through the album’s few quiet moments. One of those is closer “Comedian,” which is both the album’s most overtly religious song and also its most beautiful — it could easily slot at the end of a National record and no one would notice. Taylor opens with a bit of clever wordplay — “The saints came marching in this morning/ and they marched back out the door/ wholly offended/ no pun intended” — but then proceeds to carefully construct a complex lyrical puzzle-box that buckles, but never fully opens (it’s beguilingly hard to know how to read the line, “The king and I began a feud that time will not erase/ until he wipes that omniscient smile off his face”). It is one of the best songs of his career.
If there is a drawback to the record, it’s in the brief, occasional flashes of us-vs-them posturing that ran rampant throughout Taylor’s earliest songs. To be fair, the notion of opposition is right there in the album’s title. It’s also not surprising: Taylor’s favorite record is the Clash‘s London Calling, which is itself awfully oppositional. The trick for some listeners — like this one — comes when it’s time to cast the parts in couplets like this one from the tense title track: “You’ve been on a roll, pushing us around/ Here’s your high-five, now you’re going down.” For now, I’ve decided the song is aimed at the one-percent, even though deep down I kind of know it’s about leftists like me. Not that it’s an issue. I enjoy plenty of music that doesn’t jibe with my worldview, as well as music by artists whose life decisions I find abhorrent, and much of that is not nearly as well-written or cannily executed as Goliath. There’s always that tug-of-war of conscience, the wrestling match between personal enjoyment and personal agreement. But participation, however enthusiastic, does not equal assent; that internal dialogue is — and should be — one of the upshots of art. If we only spend time with music that reassures instead of challenges, we’re subscribing to a worldview that is inherently limited. Goliath is a tough, relentless rock record, whose questions are well worth confronting.