James Taylor: Brilliant Singer-Songwriter Who Has Always Avoided the Commercial Cliché

2 Sep

What can one say about James Taylor? The singer-songwriter has earned his place as one of the foundational artists of the rock era — with Taylor’s classic Sweet Baby James checking in at number 103 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and the single “Fire and Rain” ranked number 227 on the magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

But Taylor’s career began before that: teaming with childhood friends to form a band called The Flying Machine, which released an album in 1966. (Those songs can be found on a 1971 album called James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine, which was finally released in 1971.)

Those early years also saw the release of his first album under his own name on the Beatles’ Apple label. That album was recorded at the same time that the Beatles were recording their so-called White Album. In fact, both Paul McCartney and George Harrison guested on Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind” single. And Taylor’s song, “Something in the Way She Moves” became the inspiration for and first line in Harrison’s “Something,”

Taylor’s Apple release was never commercially successful because he had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, dealing with serious drug addiction issues and deep depression — which impacted much of his early adult life.

But after the success of Sweet Baby James, which went to #3 on the charts, Taylor was established, and he has gone on to have a successful 45-year career as a recording artist and concert performer.

Which brings us to today. It may be a stretch to think of Taylor as an indie artist. But he has always gone his own way and worked hard to be true to his craft. So, it was the height of coolness that his latest album, Before This World, released at age 67, has become Taylor’s first album to reach #1 on the charts. And while that may be as much a testament to the listening public’s preference to stream their favorite music or purchase singles rather than buy traditional albums — it certainly demonstrates that Taylor’s honest lyrics and affecting guitar-based rock has an appeal that’s spanned generations.

The opening track on Before This World, “Today Today Today,” is a wistful look back at his five decades in the music business, and his 67 years on this planet. Taylor sings, “Somehow I haven’t died/And I feel the same inside/As when I caught this ride/When I first sold my pride.” Anticipating a time when he is forced to say goodbye to his music — as well as to his friends and family — he also sings, “The bird is on the wing/The bell is about to ring/The big girl she’s about to sing/Today today today.” At least he didn’t use “…when the fat lady sings.”

“Stretch of the Highway” is a great example of Taylor performing in a funky blues-rock style — with rich Chicago-like horns and a gospel-based backing choir.

“Montana” is a tune that could have been written and performed when Taylor was recording Sweet Baby James in his twenties. His extraordinary ability with lyrics and outstanding musicianship make this piano-and guitar-melody an instant classic.

The 7th track, “SnowTime,” incorporates island rhythms that Taylor put to good use in a number of his albums in the 1980s.

“Before This World/Jolly Springtime” begins as another introspective love ballad, in which Taylor joins Sting on the vocals — and adds the rich cello of Yo-Yo Ma. It shifts midway through into a sing-along ditty that recalls Taylor’s early upbringing in rural North Carolina.

Other tracks on Before This World are excellent as well, including a song about Afghanistan, which recalls Taylor’s stance against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Taylor is a mainstream performer who has managed to never succumb to the commercialization that sometimes transforms artists into a cliché of themselves. It is fitting that he has again reached the pinnacle of success before calling it a career.

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