James Taylor pretty much wrote the book for the singer/songwriters of the Seventies. That may be a dubious distinction but Taylor's early work, characterized by subdued singing and restrained, clean backings, was also marked by an undercurrent of extreme agitation and angst. It was this sense of powerful emotions barely held in check that gave Taylor's music its dramatic tension. When that undercurrent diminished and disappeared after the definitive Sweet Baby James, Taylor's music lost its urgency. Thus began a gradual process of personal reorientation and musical redefinition. The most fascinating part of Taylor's more recent albums has been their suggestion of a search for a new raison d'être.
With Gorilla, Taylor is well on his way to staking out new ground. What he's hit upon is the unlikely mating of his familiar low-keyed, acousticguitar-dominated style with L.A. harmony rock and the sweet, sexy school of rhythm and blues. David Crosby and Graham Nash add their fluent harmonies to Taylor's sleepy-voiced leads in the panoramic "Lighthouse" and the delightful "Mexico," both of which make intelligent use of country-rock elements. More central to the album, though, are Taylor's soul-based songs, "Music," "You Make It Easy" and "I Was a Fool to Care."
The inclusion of a relaxed rendition of the Marvin Gaye hit, "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" is an indirect acknowledgement to this great singer, surely a primary source of inspiration for the new Taylor who shares Gaye's sense of romantic languor. "You Make It Easy," a terrific soul ballad with a classic theme — the lure of adultery — makes this comparison with particular clarity.
The Newmark-Weeks rhythm section, David Sanborn's saxophone, Clarence McDonald's piano and a full-blown string section push Taylor to the most overtly urgent vocal he's ever recorded. "Music" isn't a particularly strong piece of material but the introduction of a pedal steel into an airy, limber arrangement reminiscent (thanks to Weeks and Newmark) of Gaye's "Let's Get It On" gives the track more than a little charm, nevertheless. "I Was a Fool to Care" evolves from a typical guitar-plunking Taylor tune into a big, vibrant and convincing love song. This last tune and "You Make It Easy" are sure to sprout cover versions before long.
Taylor is too cool and contemplative to become the singer/songwriter sector's answer to Gaye but the influence has given Taylor new life by placing a healthy dose of happy eroticism (what's that about the sugar cane, James?) into the space vacated by his dark melancholy.