Hey pals, I have the distinct pleasure of announcing the next artist to join our festival lineup this November, and not only that, I have the pleasure of introducing this artist for the second time: Maria Taylor will be playing for the Underwater Sunshine Festival in a couple of weeks.
Steadily releasing albums over 22 years with multiple projects, Maria Taylor has released 7 solo records and 17 albums in all since she first started making music. She has performed with Bright Eyes, Moby, and Daniel Johnston, and her songs can be heard on episodes of acclaimed shows and films like The Devil Wears Prada, Grey’s Anatomy and This is Us. Azure Ray, Maria Taylor’s musical project with Orenda Fink, also collected television time and a cult following while making 6 albums of its own. Taylor’s impressive resume runs long with critically adored music and collaborations. On her latest recording she adds to the list with a work that catalogues her experiences, both unique and routine, in a life of music, love, achievement, loss, and lessons learned. Our most important touchstones are so often simultaneously beautiful and painful, and this record reflects a life lived by someone conscious of the multitudes in herself and everyone around her.
This record, entitled Maria Taylor, has taken me through several emotional phases of interpretation. After my first few listens, what I noticed most were all the moments of calm and Maria’s sense of assurance and hope. More recently I’ve heard something different: the expressions of despair that exist beside the calmer sentiments. The songs, on repeated listens, started to take on darker, more complex shades, the seaweed-clouded blues of a weary sea.
The opening track, “For Worse, For Better” starts off with Maria in her classic form, sonically placing her hand on your shoulder and whispering soothingly into your ear. She’s got pills that are tough to swallow in her other hand, but she reminds us first of the relief to come, the work that was done to create something beautiful and comfortable. Beginning with something resembling a nuptial organ call, it twists the traditional wedding vow around, and Maria’s version ends on the positive, high note. Instead of “for better, for worse,” it’s “for worse, for better.”
“Spinning Wheel” begins with an examination of beginnings and spins itself into a lyrical exploration of cycles and inevitability. We get the sense that the narrator is speaking to a past self, or maybe a future self. They observe detachedly:
“You’re flying but the weight of your wings is going to drag you down”
but attempt to offer guidance as best they can:
“And if you ever want to land I’m waiting for you on the ground.”
The chorus brings what feels like a different perspective, perhaps that of flying figure with the heavy wings:
“I can’t imagine
That this could end
I look around and look around and take it in
On this spinning wheel
I think I’m going to make it”
It gives the song a sense of wide-eyed wonder and the feeling of being overtaken by a big life-defining moment. It’s a complex cinematic journey but it’s also just a gorgeous and powerfully catchy song.
Assisted by Adam Duritz of Counting Crows with the tortured vocal counterpart to her melancholic resolve, “Waiting in Line” (it was just released, you can listen to it here) explores a death drive slowed by monotony and the depressing realization that the lonely thoughts springing up with regularity in the back of your mind will never stop blooming. To accompany the lyrical dawning of this sad truth, Adam’s background vocals escalate into a fever pitch of sorrow towards the end of the song, but Maria’s steady, healing salve of a voice reminds us that all we can do is water the rest of our garden and continue on continuing on. We’re all in a slow procession to our own funerals but at least we’re in it together.
“Right Here with You,” lingers with the theme of the difficulty of continuing on. “I just want to feel at home again,” Maria sings, pressing down on a nerve we’re all painfully familiar with. How easy, how appealing it is to cling to comfort - the wincing pleasure of early mornings when you burrow into your partner’s arms to avoid starting your day and going to work. But we all know how this works. The dread eventually creeps in because discomfort, isolation, and fear of failure are feelings we all have to weather. Sometimes we’re able to do this gracefully and other times the wail of our helpless inner child is particularly loud, the gist of each lamentation always: “I just want to feel at home again.”
Everyone is familiar with the concept of the scam and “Something for Nothing” will feel familiar too, as it uneasily describes the perplexity of navigating a culture that embraces the art of the scam - “art” being a word I say reservedly but not ironically. The truth is we’ve come to expect it and it’s not unusual for us to see casual manipulation all around us all the time, even on a smaller scale, in friendships and relationships, from people we trust.
The song places us in the shoes of someone trying to find a kindred spirit in a world full of scammers:
“I don’t really want to get something for nothing
I know you’re just the same and
There’s nothing in my hand
I hate to keep changing plans
but everybody’s trying to get something for nothing”
While “Something for Nothing” has a twinge of bewilderment, “Beautiful Life” is a profoundly, bitterly affecting song and one that reliably comes back to me whenever I roll down into another depressive valley. As my throat constricts and my vision blurs, I remember the chorus:
“Have you ever just felt like crying
Even through everything is fine
Just break down and start sobbing
And don’t we know it’s such a beautiful life”
To answer the question: Yikes. Yes. Often. To be seen for the more embarrassing indulgences of one’s inner life is both comforting and, at the same time, shocking, like realizing a stranger had been behind you while you thought you were alone.
Maria Taylor spends much of this record and, now that I think about it, much of her whole career examining quiet, secret intimate moments like this – both hers and ours. She shares moments of extreme vulnerability with us as well as the beauty she’s witnessed along the way. The whole record, front to back, feels like a self-assured collection of narratives showing us where she’s come from and where she stands now. At times it feels almost like a series of letters to people in her past - lovers, friends, selves - and to those important figures still to come. Maria knows how to move forward into the future and, on this record, she shows us unreservedly a Maria Taylor who isn’t letting a fear of the unknown keep her from diving into it. You should dive in too. We’ll all be in it together.
Come see Maria Taylor at the Underwater Sunshine Festival on November 8th-9th.
By Zoe Mintz
This essay was adapted from a piece written by the author for mariataylormusic.com.