October Road

James Taylor

Columbia Records, 2002

http://jamestaylor.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/30/2002

It's hard to talk about James Taylor's music these days without using the word "timeless."

Familiar as a favorite blanket, comforting as a letter from an old friend, a new James Taylor album shows up every five years or so, as if to remind us that, despite its many tribulations, life does indeed go on. Even for a fan like me who's been on board for the better part of a quarter-century and has a bundle of personal memories tangled up with various selections from JT's catalogue, the pace seems suitable. After 35 years, to rush it would be so NOT James.

October Road is classic Taylor in its deft melding of folk, jazz, rhythm & blues, country and classical elements into a style that is purely his own. As always, Taylor's music today is all about taking the personal and making it universal, about exorcising inner demons and re-enacting moments of joy in such a way that the listener says to himself, "Yeah, I've been there." Newly married and in his mid-fifties, he's composed for this album a set of songs about discovery and rediscovery at mid-life.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Revisiting old themes, he writes tenderly of finding new love ("On The Fourth Of July" and "Caroline I See You"), and frankly of his trials tackling personal and family demons ("Raised Up Family," "Mean Old Man"). If there's anything distinctive about this album, it's the emphasis on simplicity, on letting the song breathe and tell its own story. Over the years Taylor and various producers have added a variety of keyboard and electric guitar textures to his acoustic base; October Road gets back to basics, with heavy emphasis on Taylor's acoustic leads and voice. The full-band sound of the title track -- which features guest shots from Michael Brecker on sax and Ry Cooder on guitar -- is in fact the exception, and never crowds out Taylor himself.

The (bad pun alert) unsung heroes of this album, however, may be Taylor's long-time backing vocalists, David Lasley, Kate Markowitz and the inimitable Arnold McCuller. Their rich, precise, smartly arranged harmony vocals consistently take songs like the upbeat "Whenever You're Ready" and the gently seductive "September Grass" to the next level. Taylor's talented daughter Sally also guests on the very pretty road song "My Traveling Star" and the mournful, touching "Baby Buffalo."

The closer -- a reverent cover of, of all things, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" -- caps a sense that built for me through my first few listens to this album. Taylor, the slightly gawky, intense, self-absorbed North Carolina troubadour, has officially reached the pantheon of American composers and singers. He is as original as Gershwin, as recognizable as Sinatra, as compelling as Woody Guthrie. And he is quite simply the gold standard when it comes to confessional singer-songwriter folk-rock.

Having said that, one also gets the sense that at this stage in his career Taylor is perhaps running a little low on inspiration. Much of the musical ground he tends to here is the same he has worked for decades now. Even the frank, skillfully-woven narrative of the summing-it-all-up tune "Carry Me On My Way" suffers a bit from an arrangement that sounds suspiciously like, well, a James Taylor song. The danger in setting the standard for a genre lies in becoming generic yourself.

Not that it's going to make any difference to Taylor's legion of faithful fans. This album is JT through and through, gentle yet unflinching, restless yet reassuring, warmly human and one hundred percent trend-free. In other words, timeless.

Rating: B+

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.