When an artist has finally achieved success he is subjected to the kind of critical evaluation which will either legitimize that success or destroy it. Today, the consensus seems to be that this is the season for the demolition of James Taylor. It is the sheer vastness of his success which condemns him, somehow, even to his partisans. By comparison his less talented fellow chart-busters like Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk in fact, almost anyone get off easily.
There are both good and bad reasons for James’ popularity in the first place. Like Chuck Berry. Bob Dylan, and the Band. James is one of that rare species which perfectly synthesizes the white and black strains of American music. His singing has the high. lonesome quality of Appalachian music it is a flat, undemonstrative style which, nevertheless, bespeaks great emotion while his songs, in their harmonic sophistication, owe more to Cole Porter than to Frank Proffitt. His embellishment of a melody line is almost always bluesy: his blues and gospel performances. although not authentic in the literal sense, are confident and, if a little ironic, still convincing.
But if these things, along with a melodic and lyrical beauty and accessibility, recommend James to a substantial audience, there are less respectable qualities which helped put him over the top. He is the purveyor of a fashionable soft sound. James is asked to participate in Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series and appears on the cover of Time as the “cooling of America” ‘s mascot. He represents no political challenge or challenge to a life style.
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From this camp, there are different insidious ways in which James is exploited. I wonder whether people would quite accept his songs on sunshine, blue skies, etc., were it not for the psychological gloom from which these images spring. The madman is a modern romantic figure is the insane man in the insane society. Tom Rush graduated from Harvard; Taylor, Boston’s biggest folkie since Rush, is an alumnus of McLean Hospital. Both credentials are telling in their way.
It wouldn’t be necessary to state all this if it weren’t for the fact that these ruminations are, also, the subject of Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Coming after one of the Sixties’ tastiest records (James Taylor on Apple) and his subsequent re-Americanization (Sweet Baby James), Mud Slide Slim broods about James Taylor, songster and runaway phenomenon, and expresses his ambivalence and impotence in the face of it all.
Musically, Mud Slide Slim is a continuation of Sweet Baby James. It maintains Russ Kunkel on drums, Carole King on piano, and Danny Kootch on guitar, so the album is superficially similar-sounding to his previous effort. Yet the steel guitar is absent, Kootch’s driving electric guitar appears on only three of the album’s 13 cuts, and the tempi are moderate. The first few times through, it is dull listening; once the melodies begin to sink in, and the LP’s raison d’etre is discovered, the album’s subtle tensions begin to appear. And while the album at this point makes for pleasant, absorbing listening, there is a terrible weariness to it which is part of its artistic statement.
The album begins on an optimistic note with “Love Has Brought Me Around.” “Now my head is full of springtime, and my heart is full of you” James rejoices laments, for James is constitutionally incapable of sounding happy. Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” is another affirmative song, although with not enough difference of interpretation from Carole’s own to justify its inclusion. “Let Me Ride” with its horns and gospel declarations is the album’s “Night Owl” or “Suite For 20 G’s,” though, again, without the conventional enthusiasm. “Machine Gun Kelly” is Kootch’s contribution and it doesn’t resemble Jo Mama’s rendition a bit. James makes this affectionate memorial to the badman completely his own.
The nucleus of Mud Slide Slim is Taylor songs of travel, songs of home, and, finally, songs of songs. Songmaking and song-singing, of course, are James’ occupation and calling. They are why he travels, why serenity at home eludes him, why he encounters (from “Places in My Past”) “all the dead head miles And the insincere smiles”: “Hey Mister that’s me up on the jukebox/I’m the one that’s singing this sad song/I’ll cry every time that you slip in one more dime/And let the boy sing the sad one one more time.” It’s a stock C&W scene, and James sings it with a twang. Slipping in that dime is the unkindest cut; the image of James’ sufferings at the mercy of push-button whim typifies his predicament. When he cries, it is both on the record, and to the record.
“You Can Close Your Eyes” (whose melody is peculiarly reminiscent of the Cat Stevens-Trem-eloes’ “Here Comes My Baby”), an exquisite lullaby, James performs unaccompanied: as a lullaby, this intimate treatment is more appropriate than sister Kate’s more spectacular one. But here again the lyrics: “I don’t know no love songs And I can’t sing the blues anymore/But I can sing this song/And you can sing this song/When I’m gone.” The same loss of vocation, the same farewell, the same sense that this song is the last, for it is the song which repudiates songs.
“Mud Slide Slim” in equally polar terms offers a refuge. James, Yankee that he is, takes the classic American way out: “I’m gonna cash in my hand and pick up on a piece of land/I’m gonna build myself a cabin in the woods/ And it’s there I’m gonna stay until there comes a day/When this old world starts changing for the good.”
“Highway Song” offers a more philosophical, realistic analysis. It admits that a person chooses his circumstances as much as circumstances choose him. The highway is not pure punishment; it has an irresistable, sinister allure. There is a brief, Biblical introduction, as if Noah were preparing for the Deluge: “Father let us build a boat and sail away/There’s nothing for you here/And brother let us throw our lot out upon the sea/It’s been done before.”
This is the journey to end all journeys, and it is a dream. A swooping bass line plummets the song to a nadir out of which it never climbs (Leland Sklar’s unusual, fretless bass-playing is magnificent throughout), and James lapses from his Biblical diction into a humbler Southern vernacular:
…Sweet misunderstanding won’t you leave a poor boy along
I’m the one-eyed seed of a tumbleweed
In the belly of a rolling stone.
I had a little woman in Memphis
She wanted to be my bride
She said settle on down travelling man
You can stay right by my side
I tried so hard to please her
But I couldn’t hold out too long
‘Cause one Saturday night I was lying in bed and I heard that highway song.
The melody is essentially a simple figure, repeated over and over, which contributes to the sense of Sisyphean doom. Not the least of James’ gifts here is an impeccable car for idiomatic speech. Note. too, that “Highway Song” is about a highway song. The convolutions convolute.
The fragment “Isn’t It Nice To Be Home Again” is a postscript to “Highway Song” and represents a temporary compromise of sorts. The title is self-explanatory; as a kind of apology for all his complaining, James offers “Well, the sun was nice in L.A.” This is the way James chooses to end the album, which is his right. It is “Riding on a Railroad,” however, which seems to be the truest depiction of precisely what the situation is. “Riding” succinctly fuses the themes of travel, destiny, doubt, and of course, song.
We are riding on a railroad singing someone else’s song…
There is a man up here who claims to have his hands
Upon the reins
There are chains upon his hands and he is riding on a train.
When James asks us darkly to sing along, it is an invitation to dance on tombstones.
Once having glimpsed James Taylor’s quandary and realized how acutely he is, and how he perceives it, it becomes clear that the whole mess transcends personal error. As a general proposition, what the artist stands for, what his view of life is, correlates with the phenomenon he engenders. In James’ case, there is an uneasy discrepancy between the two. The Rolling Stones in their flamboyance can excite mass appeal; when James does, something has gone askew. James’ career is the lie to his art, for, if he is by nature an introspective reclusive, the effect of his career is the opposite. The discrepancy which makes James’ enormous success grotesque to the outsider is exactly what makes it personally threatening to him. So James himself perpetuates his problems, by releasing a best-selling record which aims at their solution.
But the fundamental problem is structural. Through popular technology, it is possible for 20 million people on a single night to be intimately communing with James Taylor in the privacy of their homes. It is only when James makes an appearance and drives these millions out of the woodwork, and into some athletic arena, that this paradox of pop culture becomes hideously manifest. Certainly it is wrong for James Taylor, either personally or symbolically, to be made its scapegoat.