Roger Taylor has had plenty of free time recently to reflect on his long, rich, extraordinary journey through life and music. With QUEEN + ADAM LAMBERT's blockbuster "Rhapsody" European tour postponed until 2022 by the COVID-19 pandemic, Roger has made good use of his lengthy lay-off. Fired up with creative inspiration, he spent much of lockdown writing and recording new material. Before long, he found himself with his first solo album in eight years, "Outsider".
Taylor's world-class skills as a composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist served him well during the enforced isolation of the last 18 months. In a tradition dating back to his very first solo album, "Fun In Space", from 1981, he wrote, produced, sang and performed all the songs on "Outsider" himself, with just a little help from longtime friends and collaborators. Building on more than half a century in music, Taylor conceived "Outsider" as a kind of mature late-career statement, its prevailing mood autumnal and bittersweet. "Autumnal is a very good word for it," he says. "It's slightly nostalgic and wistful, and quite adult, a bit more grown-up than my last couple of albums."
"Outsider" offers up a sumptuous widescreen tapestry of ruminative, exquisitely arranged pieces that cast a philosophical eye over human fragility and our brief time on Earth. Composed in Cornwall during the first lockdown in 2020, the album's opening track "Tides" is a mournfully beautiful meditation on mortality set against the vast canvas of cosmic time and the immutable cycles of the ocean, Mother Nature's very own rhythm section.
"'Tides' just completely came out of a feeling," Taylor explains. "My house is by the sea, and the tides come in and go out, you can set your watch by them, you can rely on them in a way that they can almost be a friend. It's about the inevitability of our short term here, our sure passing."
But "Outsider" is far from a gloomy album. Indeed, it balances world-weary melancholy with optimism, compassion and glimpses of brighter tomorrows ahead. Another lockdown-inspired track, the introspective 2020 single release "Isolation", concludes with the cautious hope that the scars of solitude and anxiety will soon heal when normal human interaction returns again. Meanwhile the elegant lead single "We're All Just Trying To Get By", with guest vocalist KT Tunstall adding voluptuous harmonies alongside Taylor, celebrates that most basic of human impulses: survival.
"It's the simplest statement really," Taylor explains. "It's what every life force on Earth is doing: just trying to get by and proliferate and exist. That's all we are trying to do, from plants to animals to humans, trying to survive. Also, of course, we are in the middle of a bloody pandemic..."
Even the album's cinematic, uplifting title track reminds us that alienated underdogs can rise up to wrestle triumph from the jaws of defeat. "'Outsider' is about bullying and not being in the in-crowd," Taylor explains. "It's kind of harking back to school, but we've all had that in some part of our lives. Everyone's an outsider at some point, they feel excluded or picked on."
"Outsider" may find Taylor in mellower mode than usual, but his fondness for sensual pleasures and hard-rock hedonism are still part of the package. Soaked in bluesy regret, the gorgeous "I Know, I Know, I Know" is a husky-voiced, soul-baring confessional from the viewpoint of a remorseful lover who has made one too many hurtful mistakes. "It's a bluesy apology for some very human wrongdoing," Taylor says. "Is it autobiographical? I think you should make your own mind."
By contrast, the narrator of the hard-riffing, raunchy blues-rock stomper "More Kicks" feels no shame about celebrating his wild youth and insatiable appetites. "That's a bluesy non-apology," Taylor laughs. The loudest number on "Outsider" speeds up into a stampeding crescendo with Taylor in his element, pounding away behind the drum kit like a man possessed. "Oh yeah, I can still clobber away," he grins. "But I like to think I clobber with more subtlety these days. Maybe not quite as much power but more technique."
Taylor's albums have never shied away from political statements. "Outsider" continues this tradition with the airy, polished, deceptively catchy protest song "Gangsters Are Running This World" and its punchy funk-rock sister track "Gangsters (Purple)". The scathing lyric is aimed squarely at authoritarian leaders across the globe, from Putin to Lukashenko to Bolsonaro.
"In QUEEN we always tried to be apolitical," Taylor nods. "But when you have the freedom to express yourself as a single person, you can say what the hell you like, which I've always tried to do. So many gangsters are running countries these days."
The most delightfully unexpected wild card on "Outsider" is "The Clapping Song", best known for its original 1965 Top 10 U.S. smash version by Shirley Ellis, as well as its hit 1982 U.K. remake by the BELLE STARS. This bright, brassy, funky banger is a fond flashback to Taylor's teenage pop tastes. "I loved the original by Shirley Ellis," he says. "It's just so joyful and simple. It's got a swing to it, and I've tried to recreate that swing using an ancient drum kit. It was just a real pleasure to do that song, it's like a playground nursery rhyme for kids."
"Outsider" also revisits and reworks a handful of tracks from Taylor's extensive solo canon. The lush, heartfelt romantic ballad "Absolutely Anything" first surfaced on the soundtrack to the 2015 sci-fi rom-com of the same name, starring Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale, which was written and directed by the late Monty Python legend Terry Jones. Another archive cut, "Foreign Sand", is a unity anthem co-written by Japanese rocker Yoshiki. The original was a Top 30 U.K. hit in 1994, but Taylor's new "English Mix" strips the song down to a raw acoustic ballad, his grainy vocal clothed only in luminous, delicate, finger-picking guitar.
"I just think people needed to hear the real kernel of the song," Taylor explains. "I felt the original was bit over-arranged and over-orchestrated. I like that John Lennon thing of stripping things down so you hear the kernel of an idea instead of dressing it up too much."
"Outsider" concludes as it began, reflecting ruefully on the majesty of the cosmos and the finite span of human life on "Journey's End". First released four years ago as a stand-alone single and mini-movie, this immersive seven-minute epic serves as the perfect finale for Taylor's most ambitious album to date, with its sombre emotional shadings and sumptuous symphonic feel.
"It has a quite whimsical, rather fatalistic atmosphere," Taylor says. "It's basically about thoughts of mortality. It is a sort of acceptance of the fact that this is a journey, and that journey will come to an end. It's a very musical piece with a sense of finality about it, but a sort of optimistic finality."
Launching "Outsider" in grand style, Taylor and his band are playing a 14-date tour of the U.K., beginning at the Newcastle O2 on October 2. Promising a set-list of solo career tracks old and new, plus some crowd-pleasing QUEEN classics, this is great news for the rock-starved masses as we finally emerge from lockdown hibernation.
"I want everybody to enjoy it," Taylor insists. "I doubt I will be doing this much longer but I'm still able to do it, so I really embrace it. Will I be playing QUEEN songs too? Absolutely! I can't stand people who don't embrace a lot of the stuff they are loved for. Come on, admit who you are!"
Roger Taylor may be in autumnal mood on "Outsider", but he is not going gently into that good night. This long, rich, extraordinary musical journey is not over yet.
"Outsider" track listing:
02. I Know, I Know, I Know
03. More Kicks
04. Absolutely Anything
05. Gangsters Are Running This World
06. We're All Just Trying To Get By (featuring KT Tunstall)
07. Gangsters Are Running This World (purple version)
09. The Clapping Song
11. Foreign Sand (English mix)
12. Journey's End