The James Taylor who gazes out from the gatefold of Flag is an emaciated, jaundiced Yankee eccentric glaring at us with cold, eagleeyed skepticism. The picture is almost the negative of the movie-star-glamorous photo on the cover of JT, the album that marked Taylor's corporate switch from Warner Bros. to Columbia in 1978. But the aesthetic shift from last year's debonair to this year's dour isn't just a gimmick. Whereas the material and tone of JT suggested a similar mellowing of Taylor's personality, Flag's thorny songs and hard, tense arrangements bear witness to the stark and piercing artwork.
If JT presented the kind of urbane, sexy, humorous person that we'd all like to know, Flag peels away the glamour to expose the flinty marrow of a hostile stranger. None of the new cuts has the tantalizing wit of "Handy Man" or the delicious ironic glee of "Secret of Life." Instead, Flag offers the grim self-portrait of a chronically depressed man with a monkey on his back, as Taylor relentlessly accumulates correlatives to his own despair.
One of Flag's strategies is the disparagement, from the viewpoint of the common man, of the American ideals of freedom and work. Taylor obsessively goes all the way with this idea, reiterating in track after track that such freedom never really existed because life itself is a cruel imprisonment. The crux of the LP comes in four dramatic monologues, one of which, "Company Man," is obviously autobiographical. "Company Man" is Taylor's unsparing condemnation of the corporate rock & roll star system. "So if there's something you do well/Something you're proud of/Better to save some for yourself/If that's allowed," he advises an up-and-coming musician.
The other three monologues also examine work, but find only boredom and exploitation. Taylor sees little difference between the life of a rock star — even one as successful as himself — and the more common forms of labor. (A dangerous notion, but he pulls it off.) They're all just jobs whose twin functions are to kill time and make someone else rich at one's own huge psychic expense. "Millworker," Flag's most eloquent song, portrays a widow looking back miserably on a bad marriage and ahead toward nothingness. The narrator of "Brother Trucker" is so hopped up on pills that he literally sees double. "I'm a driving fool/I make my own rules," he proclaims, knowing full well he's lying. Convicted of murder and rotting in an Alabama jail, the protagonist of "Sleep Come Free Me" is a prisoner of the state. Not even allowed the distraction of drudgery, he prays for unconsciousness.
Desolation and rage abound in the compositions that aren't concerned with work. In "I Will Not Lie for You," the artist administers a savage tongue-lashing to a close friend's wife for coming on to him. "Johnnie Comes Back" cryptically describes a man's desperate game of hide-and-seek with his own drug habit. "B.S.U.R." evokes the paranoia and duplicity that can poison a relationship when one of the parties is self-destructing. Finally, there's an icy remake of Taylor's decade-old "Rainy Day Man," perhaps rock's definitive ballad about clinical depression and addiction.
From the predominating darkness, Flag's lighter moments are thrown to us like crumbs — and bitter ones at that. James Taylor's beautiful version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Up on the Roof" is also the saddest ever recorded. His reedy, throbbing twang transforms this big-city anthem of freedom and mystical escape into a ravaged recollection of better days. A churning, modal version of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" (with a disco edge to it) finds the singer keening the chorus in an eerie, Sylvester-like falsetto that turns wit into shrill sarcasm. In "Is That the Way You Look?," a throwaway doo-wop novelty, Taylor does all the backup vocals trompe l'oeil à la the Persuasions — his most controversial use of R&B to date.
Though Flag probably won't be the hit that JT was, on its own uncompromising terms, it's every bit as impressive. Maybe more so. Taylor's new songs are exquisitely crafted, and their pain is so brilliantly understated that you can't dismiss the bleakness as mere self-pity, any more than you can dismiss Ingmar Bergman's darker musings as simple morbidity. What we've got here is as evocative an exploration of one strain of the American character — the Puritan sensibility under extreme stress — as pop music has yet offered.
Taylor's powerful and authentic vision has been masterfully delineated by producer Peter Asher, who keeps the focus on the singer's voice, which has never sounded better. With Bob Dylan in decline, James Taylor has risen to become the foremost vocal exponent of Appalachian folk and Southern blues classicism. No one else can make the plainest phrase ring with so much grit, tenderness and irony.
Flag is the aural equivalent of an Andrew Wyeth painting: austere, meticulous, its palette the color of cracked, dried mud. Like Wyeth's, Taylor's is a tormented and moralistic soul, drawn to the past, but — in some crucial way — cut off from its wellsprings. The result is art that expresses an inexhaustible patrician dolor.