His name ain’t Chip Taylor; it’s James Wesley Voight. You might have heard of his brother Jon or his niece Angelina. You might also have heard of some of the songs he’s written in the last 45 years: “Wild Thing”, “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)”, “I Can’t Let Go”, “Angel of the Morning”, and dozens more. He’s been a professional golfer and blackjack player and horserace bettor. Also, although I’m not saying this is a good thing, he discovered James Taylor. Recently, he’s had a series of alt.country/blues solo records and some better-known records with sultry singer Carrie Rodriguez.
Now, at age 62, Taylor has come out with his most ambitious album ever, a 24-song, 86-minute monster. That’s too long for a lot of people with short attention spans and very narrow definitions of what an album should be—but not for Chip Taylor, and not for me. Because these are some damned fine songs here, and not too many of them could be left out of the album’s design. They are wise songs and stupid songs, well-made and half-baked, self-pitying and brave and strange and commonsensical all at once, and they cannot even be diminished by the fact that Chip Taylor cannot sing; he whispers, he mutters, he talks, and he always sounds cool as hell… but the dude’s voice is gone, if you care about stuff like that. (Rodriguez drops in a lot to offer vocal support, though.)
Fortunately for the overly-squeamish, Taylor has divided his album into two parts. The first disc, Unglorious Hallelujah, is longer and broader both stylistically and thematically. It starts off “I Don’t Believe in That”, in which Taylor compares the war in Iraq with conflicts both timeless (the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Normandy) and recent (strangely, the O.J. Simpson trial). Although the upshot of this song is at least as old as John Donne’s whole “no man is an island” bag, it rings true; Taylor is offended by anyone who is not affected by anyone’s death, anywhere in the world. Taylor goes after double-talking politicians from both parties in a talking blues called “Hallelujah Boys”, and after all of us for viewing the war as a spectator sport in the funny “Thursday Night, Las Vegas Airport”.
But it ain’t all just politics. In “Christmas in Jail”, Taylor calls himself out for getting arrested on a DUI charge—it’s over-the-top and maudlin and masochistic, and kind of riveting. He does the same in “Michael’s Song,” slamming himself for not caring enough about a homeless guy who ends up dying, and even the country-music-buddy reminiscence “What Would Townes Say About That” is shot through with regret, as Taylor imagines one of his old long-goners takes him on a tour down “where most white folks don’t go”.
A lot of this disc is somber and hard-hitting (try this song title on for fun: “Daddy, Why’d You Take My Guitar Away”), so it’s actually kind of necessary that he’s got another lighter disc all ready for us. The full title is Red Red Rose (and Other Songs of Love, Pain, and Destruction), but it’s longer on the love part than on the other two, and the sense of humor implied definitely comes through. On “Red, Red Rose”, Taylor offers to buy underwear for his girlfriend; on “One Thing I Wanna Tell You”, we drop in on him as he’s trying to seduce someone over the phone in his cracked whispery voice; and we’re way into TMI territory by the time we get to “Little Darts”, in which the narrator wants to dump his lady because she’s mean to him, but he can’t because he becomes instantly horny every time he sees her.
These songs have a little more zip to them than the ones on the first disc. “Bippity Boo” could have been a great single for the Everly Brothers, except they probably would have had to change the line about preventing someone’s wedding by burning down the church. “The Trouble With Scientists” hums right along in olde-tyme semi-skiffle style, and “Bride in Pink” has an appealing Southwestern waltz thing happening. But most of the tunes are just hushed folkish numbers, with Taylor swallowing his wonderful words and indicating how he feels with the merest shadow of a hint.
In these two discs, we get a full-on tour of the 62-year-old mind of one of the great American songwriters. It’s like a gift that none of us deserve, and that only a bare fraction of the population of the world will ever care about. But some of us are going to care about it very deeply indeed.