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Underwater Sunshine Festival
Rockwood Music Hall, NY
South Pasadena Masonic Lodge
Los Angeles, CA
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 film 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, and on her latest recording she adds to the list with a work that catalogues the experiences, both unique and routine, in a life of music, love, achievement, loss, and lessons learned. So often our most important touchstones are 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, titled Maria Taylor, has pulled 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 that created 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.
“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. It gives the song a sense of wide-eyed wonder and the feeling of being overtaken by a big life-defining moment. “Spinning Wheel” is 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” 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 creeps in because discomfort and isolation and fear of failure are feelings we all have to weather. Sometimes we’re able to do this gracefully and other times the muffled wails of our helpless inner child are particularly loud, the gist of each lamentation always being: “I just want to feel at home again.”
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 was sitting on your couch beside 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 book of narratives to show us where she’s come from and where she stands. At times it feels almost like a collection 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.
– Zoe Mintz