There was a time, not too terribly long ago when soul music was the playground of grown-ups. It dealt not with puppy love, sock hops, double-straw malts at the drive in. It dealt with actual humans, which meant that it could be quite a mess. And it manifested itself in stirring, string-drenched songs of longing and redemption, but also fear and pain and pathos and the frequently wreck that people tend to make of love.
In today’s vacuum-sealed R&B culture, there remains great reverence for the genre’s greats — Marvin, Curtis, Stevie, Donny Hathaway — but the distance between classic and current soul is such that the former is talked about in distant, far-off terms, like people talk about, say, Roman emperors or the Shire or the Cubs’ last World Series trophy. Their names are duly lauded, but that reverence rings hollow, as most R&B folks today tend to busy themselves with schlock like over-the-top soap operas that take place in closets. With curious few exceptions, people don’t exist in R&B much.
True, sending props to the old-school is old-hat. So is making the argument that the old stuff’s better than new stuff — even if, in this instance, the new stuff makes you want to staple your feet to the floor and sandpaper off your face. But there’s little other way to introduce Lewis Taylor, a British soul sensation of astonishing skill, the kind of guy whose caramelized vocals and boudoir-worthy soundscapes hit the speakers and make heads ask: Who the hell is this guy?
Many folks across the pond know; the British press has been lauding Taylor for years, though his debut in America (adorned with a few bonus tracks) hit shelves only this year. And no less a tastemaker than Elton John, Taylor reports, goes on stage to the shimmering, gorgeous leadoff track from his spectacular stateside debut, Stoned.
Frat boys relax, this isn’t the new Cypress Hill. As those knightly props might indicate, this is a supple, breathing thing. It’s built like they used to build ’em, too — Taylor wrote, produced and performs everything (though the U.S. version includes covers of tracks by the Stylistics, Brian Wilson and David Sylvain), managing to sound pleading, sad and horndoggish without once mentioning the word “sexasaurus.” It’s sneaky little blast of fresh air for a genre in desperate, pleading need of it.
Taylor’s creamy voice is the draw here, but he lets his falsetto freak fly on “Positively Beautiful,” and cooks up a dirty simmer on “Lewis IV”. “Send Me an Angel” is a sweet summer breeze (replete with harpsichord and disco-ball pleas “come o’ come o'” in the background) that packs a solid punch despite initially sounding featherweight. Taylor layers his voice into synthetic near-oblivion on “Til The Morning Light”, but then pulls back to put himself front and center, with an acoustic guitar and a good ol’ drum box . And for “Shame”, he rocks over an old-school break beat before exploding into a chorus that rocks, startlingly so — “I thought I made you happy, but I could never tell” he dribbles, before plugging in the amps. It’s a ’70s show, but Taylor installs plenty of new-millennium textures, like the fuzzball synth and funky drummer on “Lovelight,” to skirt feeling obvious.
That throwback vibe is what keeps Stoned from falling under another recently popular label. Stoned is produced within an inch of its life, and Taylor’s too swoony and layered to qualify as neo-soul, but did neo-soul ever really mean anything anyway? If anything, it was a creative label invented by folks trying to reclaim their music. Soul is soul, and Taylor’s got it in spades.