Before This World

James Taylor

Concord Music Group, 2015

http://jamestaylor.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/16/2015

Once upon a time, James Taylor was a solitary troubadour wandering the streets of 1968 London in search of a record deal. Forty-seven years later, Taylor is an institution, a man generations of children have been named for (Taylor Swift, anyone?). He is a musical icon, one of the preeminent standard-bearers for the singer-songwriter genre and arguably its most successful exemplar.

His deep connection with multiple generations of fans and the fact that he basically stopped making new music 24 years ago—this is just his third album of new songs since 1991’s New Moon Shine, and his first in 13 years—make it no surprise that Before This World turned out to be his first number one album of his career (if sales data still has any meaning in an era when most “fans” under 35 think music should be free.)

Taylor’s best albums in the 1970s were captivating in part because they reflected so many contrasting facets of his personality—the starry-eyed romantic; the brutally honest folkie; the fragile, depressed loner; and the fearless, playful raconteur who could move from solo acoustic to a full band workout to snappy funk in the space of three songs. His latter-day output has tended to be more two-dimensional—middle of the road, professional, serious and mostly lacking the sense of adventure that animated the best of his earlier work.

Before This World sees James take on a topic that’s apt to bring on a somber mood in any case—his own mortality. Certainly opening tracks “Today Today Today” and “You And I Again” both address the desire to seize the moment and live within it in the face of what lies ahead. Here and through most of this album, Taylor deploys his full touring band of seven players and four backing vocalists, which lends the music a fullness that also inevitably distracts from the feature attractions—Taylor’s distinctive tenor voice and expressive acoustic guitar playing.

It’s perhaps no surprise that a man who’s always seemed slightly out of sync with his times would deliver an ode to the World Champion 2004 Boston Red Sox 11 years after the fact. Truth is, timing aside, “Angels Of Fenway” is a charmer, a regional folk tale given broader appeal by his choice to frame the story around his dying grandmother’s faithful allegiance to the Sox.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Batting cleanup (as it were), “Stretch Of The Highway” is the best tune here and the most reminiscent of Taylor’s classic oeuvre. A love song to the road, “Stretch” finds Taylor declaring truths that have been evident to fans for decades: “Grew up some kind of travelin’ man… My favorite thing is to miss my home when I’m gone.” Alternating between lanky, loose-limbed verses and soaring choruses, “Stretch” even edges towards playful funk as he appends each chorus with the kicker “…when I’m gone.”

(Of course, I can already imagine Taylor’s reference in “Stretch” to “first-class poontang” drawing prim objections from the same delicate-sensibility crowd who cringed when he spoke honestly of his own “fucked-up family” in 1997’s “Enough To Be On Your Way,” a song about his older brother’s death from alcohol and drug addiction. Sorry, but life isn't a Disney movie.)

The rest of the album is pleasant enough listening, but feels somewhere between familiar and predictable. In the middle section, you get an ode to solitude and the simple life (“Montana,” a location-specific rewrite of “Country Road”), a new entry in JT’s long line of tunes about fighting addiction (“Watchin’ Over Me”), and another song about being captivated by Latin music (“Snowtime,” which moves the setting for “Only A Dream In Rio” to Toronto while name-checking “The Frozen Man”).

The title track finds Taylor returning to the subject of mortality, an earnest, at times achingly pretty tune featuring guest appearances by both Sting and Yo-yo Ma. It’s a meditation on the meaning of a human life measured against the scope of history and the universe, and how infinitely small we are (see also: “There We Are”). After an instrumental bridge that borrows a few chords from Taylor’s own classic songbook, the track segues into the lilting celebration “Jolly Springtime,” a rather old-fashioned tune about seizing the moment and celebrating the circle of life.  

The one real outlier here, “Far Afghanistan” offers a geopolitical history lesson with some excellent lines and observations; it’s well-crafted but feels just a little bit done. Closing out the album, “Wild Mountain Thyme” is a traditional song featuring a stripped-down arrangement with wife Caroline and son Henry on background vocals, that’s pleasant and resonant in that familiar and comfortable JT way.

Not that Taylor has ever been a rocker, but there’s nothing here that even approaches the punchy, upbeat folk-rock of “Your Smiling Face” or “Got To Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That,” let alone his downright exuberant 1975 cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” Other than “Angels Of Fenway” and “Stretch Of The Highway,” pretty much everything here rides the line between serious and somber.

Taylor’s albums typically benefit from strong production and Before This World is no exception. With Dave O’Donnell at the board, the sound is warm and crisp all at once, with great clarity and life to every instrument and James’ wonderful voice at the center of it all. In the end it all feels rather safe and reassuring, and if that’s what you want from a JT album, you’ll likely be quite happy with this one. I just can’t help remembering back to when the man’s musical fire burned a little brighter, and in more colors than you’ll find here.

Rating: B

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