Among songwriters, Eric Taylor is a towering, if quiet, giant. His records and performances are greeted with awe and admiration by the likes of everyone from Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell to Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, and arch conservative reactionary Lyle Lovett. Like his Houstonian peers Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Taylor is a master of the four-minute novel and/or mind movie. There is never a spare word or chorus -- his economy is what makes his songwriting so powerful, so dangerous. On Scuffletown, his fifth album, Taylor changes up his approach and comes up with, what he concedes in his liner notes, to be a concept album -- though many of the songs included here have been in his set for years. Given the title, it's about a man's struggle to become himself through trial, error, misery, and momentary, fleeting glances at the elusive profundity of life. With front and back covers by Stewart Ashlee -- a painter who saw from the underside of the life Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" -- Scuffletown becomes, from the first note of the opener "Happy Endings," a strange road trip, into the heart of a storyteller who can't help but tell his stories even if they make him flinch. This record is blusier than Taylor's previous efforts. He reinvents two tunes by Townes Van Zandt -- "Where I Lead Me" and "Nothin'" that closes the album -- to fit the schematic of the record, and they're no worse for the wear; in fact, they become different songs in his hands. When he takes on Willie McTell's version of "Delia" with his own "Bad News," you can feel the album take a turn, from the tough, shoddy exteriors of the streets and alleys that live in the hearts of Taylor's protagonists, to a place where acceptance doesn't necessarily mean surrender ("Bread and Wine" and "Game Is Gone.") Using spare instrumentation, an electric guitar here, a piano there, soft percussion, and even a saxophone, was a wise decision. Taylor cut his performances live and "painted in the other musicians." As a result, the emotional effect of these songs is riveting. The listener feels/sees these stories living themselves out much in the same way that Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, OH, or Ben Hamper's "Rivethead" do. By the time you reach the end of this song cycle, in Van Zandt's "Nothin,'" with just acoustic and electric guitars to carry the song's narrative, you've reached a place of decision, of resignation, and a place where a man stands alone to face his fate. The haunting, skeletal melody is sharpened on the stone of reality and pain when he gets to the last few lines: "Bein' born is goin' blind/And bowin' down a thousand times/Echoes strummed from pure temptation/Sorrow and solitude/These are the precious things/They're the only words that are worth rememberin' anyways." This resident of Scuffletown is haunted, he's been hunted, and beaten down by what he's felt and seen, but he can still stand to tell his story, perhaps he'll even be able to do so tomorrow. Welcome to Scuffletown.
by Thom Jurek