James Taylor is the kind of person I always thought the word folksinger referred to. He writes and sings songs that are reflections of his own life, and performs in them in his own style. All of his performances are marked by an eloquent simplicity. Mr. Taylor is not kicking out any jams. He seems to be more interested in soothing his troubled mind. In the process he will doubtless soothe a good many heads besides his own.
Taylor’s music is a mix between country, blues, and some antique folk styles. Whichever idiom he is leaning on in any particular song, both his lyrics and his voice flow with a lyricism that connotes a deeply personal style. Taylor is aware of his mastery of his material and therefore tends to understate things. His reserve is a sign of his maturity. He sings with resonance and plays with grace; he refuses to let himself get lost in anything that obscures his identity as an artist.
Of the songs on the album, each seems to reflect a different shade of Taylor’s style — although on first hearing the album may sound a bit repetitious. “Taking It In” has the simple beat and instrumentation common to most of the tracks, but watch the rhythm changes fly right past you on the third line of each verse: “Morning sing me a song/Afternoon bring it along/Nightime — show me a friend/say it again/send a good dream my way.” Taylor is subtle enough to put this funky bit of syncopation across without making the listener raise his eyebrows.
In a similar way, Taylor is capable of making unusual chord changes while never jolting the ear. All such changes, whether rhythmic or melodic, are absorbed by Taylor’s coherent and naturalistic lyrics and singing “Sunshine Sunshine,” a lovely song about Taylor’s sister Kate, is a marvelous example of his musical coherence.
“Knocking Around the Zoo” combines a subdued sense of humor with more naturalism. The son is about life in a mental hospital where “there’s bars on all the windows and they’re counting up spoons.” “Something In the Way She Moves” is concerned with transcendence of a sort and is done without accompaniment. Again Taylor’s restrained delivery contributes to the power of his presentation. He lets the melody, lyric, guitar, and voice speak for themselves. He doesn’t hit you up with anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to get the song across.
The two most deeply affecting cuts are “Carolina On My Mind” and “Rainy Day Man.” The latter is noteworthy for its melody, the excellent vocal background, and the perfection with which the simple but important transitions are made. “Carolina” is also a beautiful song and has, in addition, an absolutely perfect arrangement. The bass playing is extraordinary, as are the background vocals (done by James and producer Peter Asher), drums — just everything.
There is only one problem with this album: some of the production is superfluous. There are a few string arrangements that serve no real function. The horn arrangements sound a bit too British. And on some cuts, James’ voice is not as “up front” as it should have been. These reservations notwithstanding, this album is the coolest breath of fresh air I’ve inhaled in a good long while. It knocks me out.