There is a “patrician arrogance” to James Taylor that accounts in part for his popularity while it at the same time explains the critical resistance to his work. Those who see themselves championing mass tastes can’t accept the individualized point of view — the supremely autobiographical quality of his work — even while the audience they presume to speak for has made his modest output of albums among the best sellers ever released by his record company. One group loves him because of his past, another holds it against him. And while some rock critics made the monumental mistake of defending Grand Funk Railroad simply because they were popular (therefore making them a “people’s band”), no one has ever made that same argument for Taylor.
James Taylor may be an all-American boy but he isn’t Horatio Alger, and the lionizing of many rock stars by the rock press has as much to do with old fashioned rags-to-riches stories as does the straight culture’s deification of its idols. What makes the Stones’ arrogance so divine is that we all believe that long ago and far away they weren’t rich and famous but poor and struggling, just like us. Taylor may never have been poor, but he sure has struggled. It’s just that the type of struggle is so (superficially) different that some people can’t find the resources within themselves to deal with it.
Thus, James Taylor has been the object of some of the nastiest ideological criticism yet offered in the name of rock. Some of it has been a parody of old-fashioned leftist “cult of the individual” political criticism. More often it takes the form of genre criticism not just against Taylor but against all the more idiosyncratic individualists who have emerged during the past three years, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Underlying the more generalized attacks is a feeling that because these artists sacrifice the basic macho stance of the rock & roll band for a more emotionally complex — adult — attitude towards life, they exist in opposition to rock rather than as a new, evolutionary development of it. The assumption that all rock & roll ought to be boogie-nihilistic-emotionally uninhibited music obscures from view the deeper emotional and thematic content of some of the artists being attacked.
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Joni Mitchell’s music may lack the braggadocio of Robert Plant (thank God), but her music is infinitely more erotic. Neil Young may often sound sentimental, but then the Stones of “Salt of the Earth” were not exactly cynics. And James Taylor may have the most “unburlesque” rock act ever, but the lines “There’s nothing like the sound of sweet soul music/To change a young lady’s mind …” are among the sexiest I know.
Taylor’s themes are often elementary, and the most common deal with the antinomies of trust and paranoia, love and hate, peace and anger, guilt and salvation. But in his best work he particularizes those conflicts in ways that force us to finally take the songs on a broader level than he may have intended.
Mud Slide Slim, in some ways his best written but most awkwardly performed and produced album, deals for the first time in explicitly self-conscious terms. Where Sweet Baby James was great simply because it had some great songs on it, Mud Slide Slim formed a unity in much the same way that Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue do. It was his most distant and least accessible work because so much of it dealt with being distant and seeking distance. But it is in that longing for some new psychic and physical space to grow in that James Taylor, American philosopher, starts to emerge full bloom.
Mud Slide Slim takes its greatest force, as have so many American works of art, from the notion of the search; in this case, for the blue horizon that has eluded so many dreamers before him. At the age of 23, he was already thinking such thoughts as “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.” For Taylor, a home is a shelter and a shelter is an oasis in the middle of the intolerable corrosion of his physical and psychic environment.
Dealing in searches inevitably leads to statements about destiny and fate, and these are best articulated in the beautiful but disappointingly performed song, “Riding on a Railroad.” The album ends with Taylor’s best work about the search, “The Highway Song.” Again, it too could have been better performed, but its opening verse is among my favorite lyrics in all of rock. Bob Dylan may have announced the apocalypse in bolder terms, more suited to an innocent era, in “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But James Taylor conjures up an infinitely sadder, more realistic picture of the future, played off against a subtler, more original melody, when he sings of his own and everyone’s family, and says, “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.” There is the mandatory statement of belief in the future that is part of the vision of any artistic searcher, but it is a faith based only on necessity. It is a most moving statement of the notion that in the end the only thing we can do is take a chance.
Out of the personal reflection on the closing off of options by society comes a statement about America that seems rooted in Taylor’s tradition-bound past, molded by his feeling for religion and austerity, and finalized in the crucible of his private pain. He is singing about the ultimate source of American claustrophobia, the closing of the physical frontier, and with it, the spiritual frontiers that were at once the source of the country’s greatness and are now the reason for its decline.
In the end, James Taylor’s search inevitably leads him inward, and to the extent that One Man Parade has a theme it is that each of us must find his own happiness because there is no external force or power that can provide us with it. He has stopped questioning and started dealing with his reality. In the process, he has created an album that exudes self-acceptance, exultation, celebration, and personal triumph not unlike (in spirit) Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey or Dylan’s inferior New Morning.
Taylor has never been prolific and on Mud Slide Slim he was forced to weave together a number of fragments and incomplete songs that ultimately gave the album greater force than any of its individual moments. One Man Dog follows that process to its conclusion as it sticks in the mind as a single entity, resisting initial efforts to break it down or categorize it in any particular way. In that sense it may be his best album, even though it lacks the high points of Sweet Baby James, just because it sustains the greatest degree of continuity.
By recording in his house, he seems to have gotten a freer instrumental sound than before, although Russ Kunkel’s drums regrettably lack the depth of tone found on earlier recordings. As if by compensation, either Danny Kortchmar is finally coming into his own with his jazz-soul-folk-rock guitar playing or I’m just hearing him better. More importantly, Taylor turns in his best singing performance, running through the songs with fire, force, and enthusiasm, the qualities most notable by their absence on earlier recordings.
“One Man Parade” starts right in and never lets up; he sounds like he was standing while singing for the very first time. “Nobody But You,” which he describes as a throwaway number, is perfect Top 40, just the right mixture of folk and soul, with a lovely repeating guitar line. “Chili Dog” is perhaps his most successful attempt at humor yet (“I ain’t trying to fool youse/Don’t bring on no Orange Julius”) while “Fool For You” and “Woh, Don’t You Know,” the album’s two rock & roll companion pieces, sound forced by comparison.
Danny Kortchmar’s “Back on the Street Again” is lyrically out of place but is such a good song that it works its way right into the pace of things, and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” shows James reaching for some of that jazz and pop he seems to enjoy so much.
John McLaughlin’s “Someone” sounds a bit forced too, but contains a spectacular acoustic guitar solo, and “One Morning in May” is given a good if undisciplined modern interpretation, with excellent support from Linda Ronstadt.
And then we finally get down to business with the album’s ten-minute song cycle that begins with the record’s best single tune, “Hymn” (“As a man and a woman stand alone in the light/Give us reason to be, like the sun on the sea”) and moves through “Fanfare,” with its picture of industry gone mad and its conclusion that “… as far as I can see, that doesn’t apply to you and me … we are living in the deep blue sea.” The title “Mescalito” seems like an anomaly in this rarefied environment, but the song quickly moves into the realm of the purely religious. And then there is his vision of two people, finally brought together, in the unforgettable line, “It looks like you and me, baby, dancing by the shining sea.”
He ends by offering us his invocation, “Come on baby while the moon is high/Pick up your heels and dance …” and then later, “Pick ’em up and put ’em back down, and around and around and around.” It’s all there, the earth and ocean, night and day, sun and moon, the opening eyes and the dancing feet. And it will hit you from behind because on the surface it all sounds so simple, and yet underneath the horns — so dazzlingly arranged — and the beautiful rhythm, the voice and the thoughts resonate long after the record is over. And it continues to do so every time I re