In 1996, Lewis Taylor released his self-titled masterpiece. A true modern classic, it’s an album that was years ahead of its time. Forget 25 years ago, it could easily have been made in 2021. An effortless blend of neo-soul, sophisticated pop, smart grooves and laid-back white funk, it enjoyed rapturous reviews from critics and music legends alike. But the album never managed to make an impact and given what was likely a token vinyl release at the time, the original records have long since been near-impossible to find. Lewis Taylor’s Lewis Taylor remains a holy relic for some and criminally unknown to most.
Lewis Taylor’s impeccable influences created a dazzling sonic palette: the LP as a whole suggests the visionary brilliance of Prince; the vocal stylings evoke the yearning power of Marvin Gaye; the effortless guitar playing shares the virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix; the haunting tones conjure Tricky; the innovative production and engineering invite comparisons to studio mavericks like Todd Rundgren and Brian Eno; the multi-layered, complex harmonies flash on Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson; the dark, drama is reminiscent of both Scott Walker and Stevie Wonder; the complex arrangements create textures and moods with the feel of Shuggie Otis on Inspiration Information; the bold experimentation is akin to progressive artists like Faust and Tangerine Dream; the atmosphere is in conversation with Jeff Buckley’s Grace… and we could go on. That might all sound like marketing hyperbole, but not as far as Be With is concerned. It is a genuine wonder how an album this good could’ve passed so many people by.
But despite all the reference points, the similarities are really only skin-deep because the album sounds truly original. It occupies its own distinct, strange universe that feels dark and brooding one moment, bright and joyous the next. Ultimately, Taylor sounds like Taylor.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the credits, the album wasn’t the work of Lewis alone. Sabina Smyth gets an executive producer credit on the original sleeve, but in fact she worked with Lewis on the production and arrangements, did a lot of the backing vocals and she co-wrote Track, Song, Lucky and Damn with Lewis.
Lewis clarified all this in a Soul Jones interview with Dan Dodds in 2016. He explains how not giving Sabina the credit she was due at the time was an unfortunate consequence of where his head was at and he’s now trying to set the record straight.
Together they created an exquisite and sensually-charged record, with a freshness to the writing that makes the songs catchy, melodic-yet-deep and sometimes even funky. The music is predominantly guitar-led and a mixture of organs and synths, live drum loops and electronic percussion make for a sort of modern soul backing orchestra.
On the surface the album is gorgeously laidback, but beneath the lush, sometimes slick, production there’s a murkiness in the seriously gritty funk/hip-hop instrumentation. Lewis Taylor can be a claustrophobic listen. Even its one-word, often seemingly throw-away track titles add to the sense of unease. In its most positive moments, there’s still a sense that things aren’t quite right. The magic comes from this compelling tension.
The languid, strutting “Lucky” is a sensational opening statement. Sinuous electric guitar winds around the shaking percussion with a killer bass line rattling your bones, and Lewis’s voice is sublime. Its six-and-a-half unhurried minutes manage to distill the work of Marvin, Al Green and Bobby Womack because yes, it’s *that* good. Up next is the tough, dusty drum and jazzy, unsettling psych-guitar workout of “Bittersweet”. Aaliyah described it the “perfect song”, which says it all. By turns loping and soaring, tightly coiled and blasting free, 25 years on its discordant, swaggering majesty still sounds like future R&B.
The swinging, blue-eyed funk of “Whoever” oozes sophisticated sunshine soul for hazy days before “Track” sweeps in. The music tries to lift us up, beyond the reach of the vocals trying to drag us back down as Taylor sings “my mood is black as the darkest cloud”. The spare, dubby electro-soul of “Song” closes out the first half of the album with barely contained dread as it creeps towards the lush, synth-heavy coda.
The smouldering “Betterlove” eases us into the second half, coming on like a languorous response to the call of “Brown Sugar”, before sliding into the shuffling, softly-rocking “How”. Somehow the remarkable “Right” manages to both warm things up and smooth things out even more. Taut yet luxurious, it’s definitely not wrong.
“Damn” was to have been the album’s title track and you might also be able to hear its influence on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, maybe most obviously in the chaotic closing moments of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. Building to a screeching wall of noise that suddenly cuts dead, “Damn” sounds like the natural end to the album, with the celestial a cappella “Spirit” serving as a heavenly reprise.
When it came to the sleeve, art director Cally Callomon heard Taylor’s music as “sideways off-camera glances at a plethora of influences he had” and wanted to interpret that visually: “I went off into night-time London to see if I could find his song titles in off-beam low-fidelity photographs. I even found a shop called Lewis Taylor”. With a slide for each of the album’s ten tracks, nine of them are on the inner sleeve and the slide for “Damn” makes the front cover. It should’ve been the album’s title, but concerns over distribution in the US scuppered this.
One of UK soul’s most fascinating artists, Andrew Lewis Taylor is an enigmatic figure and a hugely under-appreciated talent. A prodigious multi-instrumentalist who got his start touring with heavy blues/psych outfit the Edgar Broughton Band, he released two albums of psychedelic-rock as Sheriff Jack before Island signed him on the strength of a demo alone. But Taylor was destined to be one of those artists unable (or unwilling) to be pigeonholed and despite the best efforts of Island’s publicity department the music never sold in the quantities it needed to or deserved to. Island eventually let him go in the early 2000s and in June 2006, Lewis Taylor retired from music.
Typical for the mid-90s, this CD-length album was squeezed onto a single LP for its original vinyl release. Simon Francis’s fresh vinyl mastering now spreads out the ten tracks over a double LP so nothing is compromised. And as usual, the records have been cut by Pete Norman and pressed at Record Industry. The original artwork has been restored at Be With HQ and subtly re-worked to work as a double.
This sprawling psychedelic soul opus really is a forgotten should-be-classic. We know that there are those of you who know, and as for the rest of you, we’re a bit jealous that you’re getting to hear Lewis Taylor for the first time.