Hourglass

With his soul-searching eyes and mellow, nurturing baritone, James Taylor was the antithesis of

feral hard-rock '70s Romeos such as Robert Plant. But make no mistake — Taylor's opus, Sweet Baby James was cranked up in more parked cars than was Led Zeppelin IV. And as young singer/songwriters from Joshua Kadison to Eddie Vedder continue to prove, earnest, introspective men can stoke the hormonal urges of music fans just as handily as their more aggressively seductive peers.

Earnest guys also tend to age better. While stars like Plant often become parodies of their more youthful selves, Taylor, who never had much of an edge to begin with, can settle comfortably — even radiantly — into middle age. Taylor's latest album, Hourglass, is a case in point. From "Line 'Em Up," the graceful opening ballad, to a beautifully understated cover of "Walking My Baby Back Home," Hourglass glows with the wistful contentment of a man who has lived fully and learned well. In "Jump Up Behind Me," Taylor sings, "I've had my fun and ... my chance to be free," his voice pouring forth, like warm cocoa, over a lilting Latin beat.

Not that Hourglass is a nostalgia trip; change and rebirth are recurring themes. In the achingly melodic "Enough to Be On Your Way," Taylor salutes old friends facing new decisions. And in the gently resolute "Another Day," he serenades a lover with dreams of the future: "Walk with me.... Just to be with you ... just to know that life goes on." Simple, tender come-ons like that never go out of style.