Last August James Taylor was quoted in Rolling Stone thusly: “I hope my next album will be simpler. It has to be, because the music is simple and a big production job just buries all my intentions.” Well, this first post-Apple album dovetails nicely with that anticipation, even down to the inclusion of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” buck-wheat cakes in her mouth and all.
Peter Asher (formerly at Apple with Taylor) produced this album, as well as Taylor’s first, and, one can hear, let Taylor have free rein this time. Echoes of the Band, the Byrds, country Dylan and folksified Dion abound, yet somehow Taylor pulls through it all with a very listenable record that is all his own. The gentle, intelligent manipulation of piano, steel guitar, fiddle and a few brass arrangements alone deserve a close listening to by any erstwhile producers.
And it is hard to fault Taylor’s lyrics. “Sweet Baby James,” with its “cowboys waiting for summer/his pastures to change” and “Fire and Rain” with its “Sweet dreams and fire machines in pieces on the ground” are just a few of the images that Taylor develops. Throughout, his vocal stance is low-key and perfectly matched to the country-styled guitar work. No acute solos or overstressed melodies appear as musicians and vocalist together manage to mandala their way through Taylor’s persistent lonely prairie/lovely Heaven visions that, at times, work their way up to the intensity of a haiku or the complexity of a parable.
Taylor only shifts from this stance a couple of times. “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip On Me” is less than two minutes long; bluesy yet random, it sounds like studio hi-jinks used to fill out an album. But the other exception, “Steam Roller,” is a different story. Here Taylor is earthy and lowdown with definitely crude electric guitar behind him as he moans “I’m gonna inject your soul with some sweet rock and roll and shoot you full of rhythm and blues.” Then a miasmic, brass riff to make sure things stay tough, followed by a particularly timely and potent couple of verses: “I’m a napalm bomb for you baby/stone guaranteed to blow your mind/ and if I can’t have your love for my own sweet child/there won’t be nothing left behind.” A double-entendre tour-de-force pulled off effortlessly.
This is a hard album to argue with; it does a good job of proving that his first effort was no fluke. This one gets off the ground just as nicely, as Taylor seems to have found the ideal musical vehicle to say what he has to say.