In the Pocket is a cool, impersonal, slick piece of work. For the man who almost single-handedly popularized the role of the "sensitive" singer/songwriter — the performer who bared his soul for all to see — this record represents a curious retreat behind the barriers of pop convention. If Taylor intended In the Pocket to be a collection of pop edibles to be consumed quickly and enjoyed for their momentary pleasure, the album could be justified on a variety of grounds. But he has not even accomplished that. Instead he offers a series of autobiographical ballads that rely on production tricks, inspirational songs in the form of Dear Abby bromides, and R & B sendups that embarrass their sources. Worse, he has failed to write a single memorable melody, and on a record that is more that 40 minutes long, the result is inevitable — boredom.
Taylor has never been a sophisticated songwriter — in fact, simplicity has been one of his trademarks — but his new songs drip with wordiness and cliches. "When you're all by yourself alone," he sings at one point; or, "You can run but you can't hide." Almost all of the songs on In the Pocket recall others I would rather hear. "Daddy's All Gone" reminds me of David Whiffen's "Lost My Drivin' Wheel," the latter a searing song of isolation brought on by the road. "Everybody Has the Blues" demands comparison with B. B. King's "Every Day I Have the Blues"; the difference, however, is between the easy reassurance of fatuous optimism and hard-fought faith achieved through struggle.
The album's principal failure is "A Junkie's Lament." Having once struggled with his own heroin habit (RS 76 & 125), one would hope Taylor could write a personal song about his experience. Instead he gives us a description rife with platitudes, sung with all the commitment of a bounced check. He further bankrupts the song by injecting a funeral march for its coda, which is as obvious as it is unnecessary.
Taylor continues to borrow heavily from R & B. But his rendition of Bobby Womack's "Women's Gotta Have It" is listless, and his collaboration with Stevie Wonder, "Don't Be Sad ('Cause the Sun Is Down), is simply another song assuring peace and happiness. At least on "Money Machine," Taylor has the sense of humor to sing, "I've seen fives and I've seen tens."
To say that a performer hasn't taken any risks has become the prime cliché of rock & roll criticism, but there is no other way to describe James Taylor's current failure.
If In the Pocket were his first rather than his seventh album, it would hardly cause a ripple or receive a review of this length.