With its heartening aura of renewed faith and burgeoning self-knowledge, James Taylor’s That’s Why I’m Here reveals a man at peace with himself, his notorious inner demons finally silenced.
Taylor’s career has been indelibly colored by the forlorn imagery of Sweet Baby James and the media scrutiny of his mental health and drug history that followed. He reached a plateau in 1977 with JT — an album whose open emotional landscapes suggested that he had set some of his anxieties to rest. And if the uneven Flag (1979) and Dad Loves His Work (1981) signaled backsliding, this new album’s title track implies that his friend John Belushi’s death by overdose has turned Taylor around decisively (“After the laughter the wave of dread/It hits us like a ton of lead”).
Producing himself (with engineer Frank Filipetti) for the first time, he has fashioned, first and foremost, a “James Taylor record” — eclectic, whimsical, accessible — but one enhanced by confident new compositions and the kind of tasteful, unencumbered arrangements that set JT‘s songs free. Taylor’s near born-again enthusiasm — manifested by a vocal vitality often missing in his studio work — enlivens a glowing remake of Buddy Holly’s classic “Everyday,” the lovelorn raveup “Turn Away” and the funky blues romp “Limousine Driver.” But the record’s heart and soul lie in two of the most impassioned performances of Taylor’s career. “Only a Dream in Rio,” a stirring reverie of personal, social and political awakening, sets the communal rush Taylor experienced onstage at last January’s Rock in Rio festival against the backdrop of the first election held in Brazil in twenty-one years. And “Only One” is an anthem of personal fortitude put over the top by emphatic vocal support from Joni Mitchell and Don Henley — two artists on a list of guests that also includes Graham Nash and Deniece Williams.
Taylor, once perceived as a new-breed American folk hero, puts a conceptual wrap on the album with an intense reading of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a mythic tale of good over evil and the restoration of peace to a troubled land. It is a bold stroke, but one which That’s Why I’m Here, with its moving portrait of personal restitution, both earns and makes entirely convincing.