This ‘James Taylor’ review was written by Omar Alavi, a GIGsoup contributor.
No matter how you try to showcase his music, James Taylor’s songs stand out as pure and raw and lingering. Whether he is the elder statesman or king of soft pop is anyone’s guess but this much is true that Taylor writes with the conviction of someone who has seen it all, done it all, recovered from it and then recovered some more. He sings as though he has a lot of time on his hands and that everything is going to be alright. No urgency just an air of austerity as the subjects run about their lives, Taylor marshals his songs as the 70’s haven’t gone or the 80’s never came and all the rest of them decades that follow just never quite happened, musically that is.
Don’t get me wrong, his subjects are all contemporary, very relevant in his first new album, in 13 years, of original material Before This World. For example his recovery from heroin-addiction is documented. His third-time-around-lucky-in-love story comes alive; a little bit of Americana through baseball and the socio-political drama of international politics are sung through the perspective of an elegant lay-back folk considerations. James Taylor sings with empathy and relentless nasal falsetto that is his signature. The question is whether the new album is going to expand his fan-base or is it a peace offering for his vast number of followers after a gap of almost a decade and a half.
Today, Today, Today is a song of affirmation, of second chances and of seizing the moment when it has presented itself to Taylor. Between a fiddle and guitars Taylor is upbeat about finally getting the drug monkey off his back, “somehow I haven’t died and I feel the same inside” and is ready to surge forward such that “the world will open wide, and I’m running with the tide, it’s time to cut this side….”
You And I Again is a love song that encompasses a few lifetimes. The concept of loving someone as if you have known them from before is the theme driving the wistful melody from a delicately played viola. This love reincarnate, Taylor’s third marriage, weaves beautifully arranged words – “You and I again…have it all back again, just one more time, then again maybe we can’t cause I can’t escape this feeling that we’ve been this way together, You and I” – into a song that transcends time and space.
Angels Of Fenway paints a little bit of Americana for you – the age old rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. It’s a most brilliant anthem that has the potential to be a classic. With unhurried arrangements and engaging lyric, the song sucks you in a whirlpool of famous plays and star players from Bambino to the Babe and from Coke to hot dogs. Indeed Taylor young son Henry also sings a verse to complete the Father & Son tradition of baseball in American lives.
James Taylor sings Stretch Of The Highway as a wonderful tribute to the USA. His canvas covers wide from the President and Corporations post WWII to the hard working people who shared a vision to rebuild the country into the most beautiful stretch of land – “Eisenhower, Mr. Dwight D.; General Motors, Big Ol’ GMC, they saw the future…”. In a way the song reminisces Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land but with a missionary zeal. The rhythm is R&B patented with a strong infusion of blues and blares – horns and trombones.
Montana follows oh so delicately from the previous song expanding on the theme of Americana with poignant lyrics that reflect almost the grandeur of the great western pioneers of yore – the cowboys, the high plains drifters – with a warmth that can only be found around log burnin’ campfire. “I wish to my soul I was back in Montana, high on my mountain and deep in the snow, up in my cabin over the valley, under the blankets with you” vividly captures the closeness and the mood under a cold Montana night.
Taylor revisits his days of drugs, deceits and cheats in Watchin’ Over Me, a song of penance, a homage to a “sister who is watchin’ over [him]”. The song is set in 2 by 4 and is a gentle country-infused rocker that plays on the gratitude James feel on being able to make it despite “the damage [he had] done.”
Snow Time is a multi-layered track that sails on smooth jazz turning into folk before resting into the Caribbean steel drum façade. The song is another geographical offering from Taylor only this time it’s not a particular town or region rather a state of mind in an amalgamation of ambience and atmosphere. Through the eyes of a rambler, a drifter, it’s a slice of a blue-collar lifestyle as he salutes the “exiled Mexican textile working, punching two clocks, sending two paychecks home boys, hard-working law ‘biding bus riding people, celebration on wheels destination unknown.”
Before This World/Jolly Springtime is a mini tableau of the meaning of life expressed through an initial lament to a peppy and heroic end. Taylor attempts to soothe his brood in the context of the “rrrrum pum pum pum” Christmassy feel, when the song becomes one of hope amidst much confusion. The song features a brooding Sting on background vocals.
Taylor writes a wistful Far Afghanistan as a postcard dancing, with the dark silhouettes, to the marshal beats and an old-world twang of Shehnaii, a woodwind instrument indigenous to that neck of the world. It’s no protest song or a song of peace in fact it is another panoramic view from the point of view of Americana – broad strokes that underscore the essence of Afghanistan.
Wild Mountain Thyme is written in a throwback folk song style of the early twentieth century with old English and ‘On top of Old Smoky’ imagery. Consider “I will build my love a bower by yon clear and crystal fountain, and on it I will pile all the flowers of the mountain…” Although the song doesn’t really fit the album conceptually the song does give an indication where James Taylor wants to go musically next.
Before This World generates a collage of socio-geographic images, rhythm patterns and scintillating vocals that although might not be dripping with sex are exceedingly sultry exuding an absolutely balmy atmosphere that you can melt under. The musical horizons have broadened, singer songwriters have adapted, some have gone by the wayside, yet James Taylor remains largely the same singer he was in 1971 lazily singing ‘em out at the Oakland Coliseum Arena to a wildly appreciative crowd. That’s his fan base – mellow people of substance and values and with knitted suits and that gentle hip charm, rich in character – that doesn’t really age, it just shifts to the next era, each era bigger than the last. So James Taylor has hit a grand slam home run for his ever swelling numbers of Taylorheads!
‘Before This World’ is out now on Concord Music Group
The full track-listing for ‘Before This World’ is as follows…
1.”Today Today Today”
2.”You and I Again”
3.”Angels of Fenway”
4. “Stretch of The Highway”
6.”Watchin’ Over Me”
8.”Before This World / Jolly Springtime” (featuring Sting)
10.”Wild Mountain Thyme”