Before This World is a remarkable collection of what James Taylor calls “agnostic hymns, recovery songs and love songs” that stands up to the best of his work.
By Glenn Rifkin
After 13 years away from the studio, James Taylor is back with an album of new songs. And one thing his fans can celebrate is that despite the hiatus, the beloved troubadour has lost nothing off his fastball.
Of course, Taylor didn’t have to go back on the mound. His millions of admirers were perfectly content idolizing him for his existing body of work. His 17 studio albums, 16 of which were original material, were replete with the mesmerizing, melodic, classically JT material that, over a nearly 50-year career, has earned him a spot in the pantheon of truly iconic singer/songwriters as well as induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Beginning with his 1970 breakthrough classic Sweet Baby James, which catapulted him to worldwide fame, Taylor turned out a formidable discography throughout the ’70s and ’80s that made him a legend among the PBS support set. He has sold more than 100 million albums, won five Grammy awards, and is so steeped in global adulation that he sometimes seems too good to be true. He slowed down his output in the ’90s and beyond, but he never left the road and he never stopped writing music. His body of work is so filled with memorable, beautifully effortless words and music that some forget that he has been as prolific as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and other voices of that generation. And unlike most of Taylor’s fellow icons, his voice and charisma remain very much intact.
Taylor’s last offering of original tunes came in 2002 with the release of the unremarkable October Road and, though he recorded a Covers album in 2008, Taylor has been absent from the studio for a considerable while. But next week, with the release of Before This World, Taylor proves that he hasn’t lost his touch. In fact, James Taylor fans are in for a surprise. Before This World is a remarkable collection of what he calls “agnostic hymns, recovery songs and love songs” that stands up to the best of his work. They feel new and fresh, but they also evoke the emotional attachments Taylor has established with his earlier compositions. After a long unparalleled career, at the age of 67, Taylor maintains an obvious love of craft and of performing for adoring audiences. Now he has added still more value to an already notable body of work.
The backstory is that in order to create these tunes Taylor had to pull himself out of his comfort zone, first holing up in Newport and then in a cabin in Montana. The result is a beautifully produced collection, recorded mostly at his studio in the Berkshires, that is as good as his 1997 Grammy-winning Hourglass album: it is reminiscent in some ways of the earlier LP’s strengths but it does not come off as repetitive. His voice is strong, uniquely James, able to give every line a wine-sweet smoothness that makes you close your eyes and sway in your seat. These lyrics aren’t going to remind anyone of Wordsworth, but they are poignant and personal. You can bet concert-goers will be singing along with every word when he hits the road this summer.
The rich bluesy “Stretch of the Highway,” perhaps the album’s signature tune, takes him back to the road “steady as she goes” and he is not shy to proclaim “My favorite thing is to miss my home when I’m gone, soon as I’m gone.”
“You and I Again” is a lovely tribute to his wife Kim with whom he has settled into a calm domesticity out in the Berkshires. “You and I again, these days go by, And I wish I could slow the whole thing down, and have it back again, just one more time.”
A lifelong Red Sox fan, Taylor offers up “Angels of Fenway” as a tribute to the Old Towne Team and it is sure to provoke a sustained ovation when he plays at Fenway Park in August. He’ll probably leave it off the set list if he plays Yankee Stadium.
With guest stars Sting and Yo Yo Ma on the nautical, haunting title song “Before This World/ Jolly Springtime,” Taylor reminds us that his oeuvre has, despite its apparent simplicity, a distinctive complexity. It may seem easy, but go try to sound like James Taylor. Dave O’Donnell gave the album a rich production; Taylor is accompanied by his “All-Star Band,” which features Larry Goldings on keyboards, Lou Marini on horns, Steve Gadd on drums, Jimmy Johnson on electric bass, Michael Landau on electric guitar, Walt Fowler on horns and keyboard, and his long-time backup singers Kate Markowitz, Arnold McCuller, Andrea Zonn, and David Lasley.
One might wonder why he chose to close out the album with a traditional folk ballad, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” but by giving it his signature styling, he makes an old folk song his own.
The truth is that not everybody loves Taylor, a fact he acknowledged in a recent Boston Globe interview. “Some people hear my music and are just put off by the fact that it’s pretty,” the musician explained. “And there’s no doubt about it, primarily I’m interested in singing pretty.”
With Before This World, Taylor is singing pretty yet again and regardless of the naysayers, that is going to make a lot of people very happy.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.