Submitted by Howard Druckman
Disclaimer and Full disclosure: I’m the husband of Beverly Kreller, who happens to be Julian Taylor’s Canadian publicist, via her company SPEAK Music. I would be as impressed as I am with the album no matter who the publicist was. In a decade, I’ve never even suggested writing about any of her clients, including Taylor. This is a rare exception. The album is that great.
With Beyond the Reservoir, Julian Taylor’s songwriting has taken a quantum leap forward.
Sonically, it’s superb album. The pedal steel, snare brushes, and strings on “It Hurts (Everyone Was There,)” perfectly compliment the song’s bittersweet sentiment. The deep, booming hand drum in “Seeds” is an irresistible force that propels it forward. The lengthy, epic finales of “Moonlight” and “Opening the Sky” drive home their generous spirit. The dobro solo in “Murder 13” is brief and understated, but sublime. The strings are essential and impeccable throughout. Taylor’s unexpected singing choices – doubling his bass vocal with one sung an octave higher; dropping vocals here, and spreading them across natural breaking points there; offering occasional “la-la-la” solos and choruses – end up feeling natural, and charming.
Lyrically, it’s a conversational, confessional journey through Taylor’s life. It’s as captivating and resonant, in its personal approach and melodic songcraft, as Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – expert singer-songwriters sharing the truth of their own lives as closely as they dared.
In the first four songs, Taylor focuses on friends and family, honouring them as he reveals the details of his history, grounded in his hometown of Toronto: hitting Yonge Street with his pals after the Blue Jays’ first World Series win in 1992; his friend Alex, who was the 13th murder victim of 2005 in The Six; and a community of fellow musicians, befriended while playing the city’s open stages. Taylor hints at his rebellious teenage years, admitting that he endured more than one arrest, and saw more than one friend buried.
With “Wide Awake,” the view broadens outward, beyond more scenes from Taylor’s life, remembered during a sleepless night, as he considers past mistakes, choices, and heartaches. Then he sings, “There is an abundance of hope / That lies between the oceans of time / There’s nothing singular about it / Yet it can clearly be defined.” The abundance of hope is his (and our) lifetime(s); the oceans of time exist before our births and after our deaths; and while no life is singular – we exist in the world with each other, not alone – it can be defined by what we do. Life is fleeting, but Taylor celebrates the gift of it with his mother’s words, “aren’t we lucky,” that resound with gratitude just for being here. The song is about becoming “woke,” not only in the current sense, but also to the array of possibilities before us.
The next three songs come from that awoken consciousness, documenting Taylor’s growing awareness of his place in the world, and especially the significance of his mixed Afro-Caribbean and Mohawk heritage.
The bouncy, tuneful “Seeds” acknowledges the enduring hopes and dreams of Indigenous peoples. “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds,” sings Taylor, celebrating First Nations’ strength, growth, and pride in the face of both historical and ongoing persecution. As he sings, “Smoke signals in the air evoke / From the darkest depths / That our hearts can be free.”
“Stolen Lands” delves into those depths. To a haunted but propulsive minor-key melody, Taylor recounts the devastating pain he feels about children killed at residential schools; watches his Mohawk grandfather cry about losing his language; and tells of a Black youth slain by police in a senseless tragedy. He offers a gripping alternative to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” speaking the truth that “this land was taken,” “built on slavery,” and “now everyone sees.” He sings that his Mohawk ancestors had their land stolen, and his African ancestors were stolen from their land. When Taylor sings, “Here I stand,” you can feel the power of his courage, and his resolve.
“I Am a Tree” is a gentle meditation that broadens his vision even further. The language of the song is, intentionally, so simple that a child could understand it. When banjo and piano meet a gorgeous, slow-building string arrangement, it crystallizes this beautiful hymn. It heralds the idea, common among many Indigenous peoples, that we’re meant to stand on the earth like trees, deeply rooted in the land, reaching great heights, growing peacefully alongside each other.
Taylor spends the final trilogy of songs on Beyond the Reservoir as an adult, present in the here and now, and looking to the future.
In the melancholy ballad “Moving,” he muses on the sad end of a long-term romantic relationship. Armed with wisdom, Taylor views such difficult change as part of the illusions of time and space, without which “we’d be standing still.”
But what if something makes you stand still? The beginning of “Opening the Sky” finds Taylor with a heavy head, unable to see, barely able to swallow, recalling everything that’s ever happened to him. He’s referring to his initial shocked state, right after a car accident so severe that it’s a miracle he was able to walk away with minor injuries. Facing the abyss of his own mortality, he spends the song offering sage advice to his 10-year-old daughter (and all of us), as it slowly builds, in a long crescendo, to a glorious, hard-charging coda. From the modest first instruction to “mind your manners” right up to “love beyond your own comprehension,” it’s a hard-earned, kind-hearted view of how we might all best live with each other.
From that peak, Taylor de-compresses with a soft, finger-picked acoustic finale. “100 Proof” covers a song by seasoned Canadian folk fixture Tyler Ellis. To a melody that borrows from Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train,” the song recommends a homespun, lifelong recipe by which, once again, we might best thrive beside each other: “If kindness were a spirit / Be 100 proof.”
With Beyond the Reservoir, Julian Taylor has plumbed the depths of all he’s gone through, and returned with the jewels of his songs. His new music finds universal truth in his personal experience, and chooses compassion as his – and our – best way forward. It stakes his claim as a musician to treasure, and one of potentially great impact.
For more visit: https://juliantaylormusic.ca/