Dad Loves His Work is a typical James Taylor record. The tunes are simple and memorable — you can sing along with most of them after two listens. This is especially true of the LP’s hit single, “Her Town Too” (a duet with cocomposer John David Souther), “Stand and Fight” (which Taylor performed in the movie No Nukes) and “That Lonesome Road” (arranged and sung like a Protestant hymn by an a cappella choir). Peter Asher provides impeccable production, and the singer is backed by his usual lineup of sterling musicians. But, as with just about every James Taylor disc, the overall effect is at once soothing and infuriating. Why? Because the sonic polish that coats Dad Loves His Work, while making it easy and pleasant to listen to, also seals off an interestingly turbulent world of emotion, keeping half-hidden the impulses that made the songs worth writing in the first place.
The album’s title is both reassuring and apologetic. Dad is happy, therefore family life will be stable — except that, in this case, Dad is a pop star whose job takes him away much of the time. Staying home versus saying goodbye, the comforts of constant love versus the zing of being a free spirit: these aren’t the only things Taylor sings about, but they pretty well constitute his current preoccupations. The reason we pay such close attention to James Taylor’s highly public, up-and-down marriage to Carly Simon is that we recognize the struggles that afflict relationships and want to know how others solve them. Here, Taylor explores marriage on the rocks (“Hard Times”), drug problems (“Hour That the Morning Comes”), wanderlust (“London Town”), postmarital social awkwardness (“Her Town Too”), etc. — issues that we realize involve feelings like rage, bitterness and self-hatred. Yet Taylor (unlike Simon, who, for better or worse, spills her guts on her records) remains so reined-in that his singing rarely registers anything stronger than wistfulness. Instead of probing the complexity of the situations at hand, his lyrics settle for a superficial impressionism.
Often, this can be intriguingly ambiguous. Just as often, however, the compositions sound incomplete, unfinished. “Sugar Trade” sets forth several heavy ideas but doesn’t tie them together, so it’s impossible to tell what the tune is about. The same goes for the beautiful “Believe It or Not,” in which a direct expression of love unexpectedly seems to avert a crisis, the details of which are impenetrable. “Her Town Too” promises some sort of narrative resolution that never quite arrives, and the number comes across as merely a catchy, mindless ditty. In all of these cases, Taylor’s ambitions are worthy: he seems to want to push beyond commonplace la-la-la love songs. But he doesn’t demand enough from himself and sometimes opts for what simply sounds good.
Dad Loves His Work is certainly a listenable LP. Still, those who admire James Taylor for the depth and craftsmanship of material like “Millworker” have come to expect more than mild-mannered pop crooning from him.