James Taylor’s mosaic art embodies two primary contradictions: the public figure versus the private person, and more importantly, the schizoid quality of reflective intelligence. It is an art of balance, dependent on the juxtaposition of conflicting elements. The public Taylor is an aesthete, a musician’s musician, who formalizes personal testament in rigorously crossbred traditional modes. These master-crafted harmonic structures provide the armor for his poetry, which is often startlingly intimate — not intimate in the erotic-confessional manner of Joni Mitchell but in its apprehension of one’s personal destiny being ultimately a matter of will.
For many critics the most unsettling, because it is the most obvious, contradiction in Taylor’s work is his relationship to rock & roll, a style he occasionally embraces, but with a scholarly gentility that minimizes the vulgar and exhibitionist elements of rock — elements without which it cannot live — and treats it more as an exploration of musical dialect. To those for whom rock & roll is sacrosanct, Taylor’s interest seems duplicitous in the restraint of its aggression and therefore patronizing. To others, like me, who view contemporary music as a pluralistic, continually eclectic phenomenon, Taylor’s approach seems legitimate on its own terms, affectionate and certainly not patronizing. I emphasize this particular contradiction because Walking Man contains Taylor’s most unabashed rock efforts to date. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Is Music Now” pays direct tribute to the black origins of rock & roll and its assimilation within our cultural lifeblood and Taylor delivers Chuck Berry’s 1964 hit, “The Promised Land,” with understated fidelity. Both cuts work in the way they’re supposed to, as energetic polished homages. Of the remaining eight songs, only one, the other non-Taylor composition, David Spinozza and Joey Levine’s “Ain’t No Song,” fails to please. A tuneful medium rocker, arranged soul-style, its inane lyric contracts the phrase, “Could hardly sing about you,” into an unintentional pun, “Carly sing about you.”
While the album’s rock artifacts add dimension to Walking Man, six Taylor originals develop its central theme — the psychological reunion between material and incorporeal perceptions of reality. The opening title cut depicts with striking imagery the contradictions between social integration and visionary solitude, locating both possibilities in the autobiographical persona of the walking man, “moving in silent desperation/Keeping an eye on the Holy Land, a hypothetical destination.” At the end of the song, Taylor bids “so long” to this isolated figure, a metaphor for the once-dominant darker half of a divided sensibility. The question of resistance or inaction in the face of Watergate is raised in “Let It All Fall Down”; its resigned chorus (featuring Paul and Linda McCartney and Carly Simon) seems to advocate inertia as our only alternative. “Let It All Fall Down,” perhaps the album’s finest cut, offers one of the most cogent and sobering musical expressions of thwarted political idealism to come out of the Nixon era. “Me and My Guitar” and “Migration” meditate on the creative process, detailing the hesitancy of self-expression given “too many choices … with all these extra things [that] serve to confuse me.” And “Daddy’s Baby,” on which Carly Simon sings backup, is a touching acoustic lullaby to their infant daughter Sarah, Taylor’s guitar part fading into the sound of the Vox Humana, an instrument that transmutes vocals into an organ-like timbre. Besides the excellent title cut, Walking Man boasts two other radiant songs of self-acceptance — “Hello Old Friend” and “Fading Away.” “Hello” is a beautiful ballad evoking equilibrium after a lifetime of travel during which Taylor “snatched the devil’s catch and outran the hounds of hell.” “Fading Away,” the final cut, fittingly personalizes and completes the theme of the title song, interposing precise description of an idyllic setting against presentiments of psychic dissolution, then uniting this opposition by an affirmation of love: “Well it’s really not so bad to be fading away/Come along with me and we’ll go fading away.”
David Spinozza’s able production, which utilizes strings and two horn sections, underscores the optimism of Taylor’s new material, and by adding a slight echo, enhances his voice, which has never been stronger. Walking Man is the first album in which James Taylor has sounded more warm than sullen, more confident than confused. What he accomplished tentatively in One Man Dog, a composite of miniatures pieced together to create a unity more impressive than any part, is Walking Man‘s definitive achievement — the communication of personal happiness. It is a pleasure to share it with him.