On his first album of new songs in 13 years — a long wait even by his meticulous standards — James Taylor's past is never far in the rearview mirror. "Somehow I haven't died," he observes in "Today Today Today," the album's back-porch-ready single. "Angels of Fenway" is a poignant reflection on his late grandmother and her devotion to the Red Sox; as he sings, 1965, the year Taylor became a Sox fan, "doesn't seem like a long time ago."
The simplicity of the music matches Taylor's nostalgic mood. With its renewed focus on his voice and guitar — both miraculously unscarred by time and excess — Before This World is the most direct studio record he has made in many years. Told from an American soldier's conflicted point of view, "Far Afghanistan" has the subtle intensity and Celtic song roots of Taylor's early work. The pairing of the meditative title track with the spring-in-its-step of "Jolly Springtime" feels like an older, wiser version of his multipart classic "Suite for 20G," from 1970. Even with a few slightly cornball moments (the world-music salute "SnowTime") and an occasional over-reliance on gauzy harmonies that threaten to depersonalize the songs, Before This World is sweet grown-up James.