Friday, June 23, 2017

The Passage of Time




On June 24 of 1977, James Taylor released his first album for Columbia Records and his biggest selling studio album JT. It was one of the purchases that arrived in my dorm room one winter day after I had joined the Columbia Records and Tapes club with about three million other subscribers. 

The passage of time has streaked by, but I still have great affection for this album. Taylor is in great voice, even though he was still battling his drug demons. The slow songs are extremely thoughtful and rewarding to the close listener while the fast songs actually rock. Sweet Baby James is his best but I'd argue this comes second.




The dean of rock critics, Robert Christgau gave JT a B, writing

 James sounds both awake--worth a headline in itself--and in touch; maybe CBS gave him a clock radio for opening an account there. "Handy Man" is a transcendent sex ballad, while "I Was Only Telling a Lie" and "Secret o' Life" evoke comparison with betters on the order of the Stones and Randy Newman, so that the wimpy stuff--which still predominates--sounds merely laid-back in contrast. Best since Sweet Baby James, shit--some of this is so wry and lively and committed his real fans may find it obtrusive



Rolling Stone's Peter Herbst called JT a welcome comeback album, writing:

JT is James Taylor coming out of his personal closet. In "Looking for Love on Broadway" he sings, "Had my fill of self-pity," and that's epochal stuff for the man who almost single-handedly developed the eyes-affixed-to-the-navel songwriting and performing posture. Yet the album supports Taylor's claim.

 Only one song on JT, "Another Grey Morning," even skirts depression, and that song illustrates Taylor's evolution rather neatly. The form and content of Taylor's most striking work have always reflected an intense duality: the imagery was all "night and day," the singing hauntingly schizoid. Taylor could sound icily calm intoning lyrics such as "Ain't it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind," or couch his most distressingly unhappy lyrics in jaunty tunes like "Sunny Skies."



But "Another Grey Morning" makes no bones about its intentions; it makes no effort to put on a happy front. It's about the effect of one person's depression on another, and Taylor's stirring imagery and singing evoke emotion rather than flatten it. In fact (not to get too academic), his use of gray rather than his traditional black and white signals a psychological and artistic breakthrough.

 There are all kinds of evidence of that breakthrough on JT. The singing throughout is ringingly warm, the phrasing relaxed and intelligent. And the variety of material allows Taylor to span a broad emotional range. On Danny Kortchmar's seething "Honey Don't Leave L.A.," Taylor keys the song with his rough, authoritative reading of the line, "They don't know nothing down in St. Tropez." Taylor is actually a pretty convincing rock singer here, as he is on the album's unabashedly happy opener, "Your Smiling Face." 

 Taylor presses his luck occasionally, but at least he's taking risks. On "I Was Only Telling a Lie" he seems to be imitating Tom Rush's posturing lower register (as in "Who Do You Love?"), and his attempt to evoke a déclassé atmosphere in the same song ("half flat six-pack of lukewarm beer") is a little strained. Strained, too, is his gospel-jazz novelty, "Traffic Jam." Taylor tells us "how I hates to be late," not even realizing, I suspect, the meaning of the use of such archaic black idioms.




 But the risk taking generally pays off. "Bartender's Blues" could have been a sendup of country and  western were its chorus not so utterly convincing. And Taylor's remake of Jimmy Jones' mile-a-minute "Handy Man" is so unlikely that it vitiates the usual criticisms of Taylor's soul interpretations. Taylor's sensually slow version of "Handy Man" is a masterpiece of adaptation and singing. As an uptempo number it was slightly adolescent; through Taylor's gentle cooing the song becomes more overtly, and successfully, sexual.

 JT is the least stiff and by far the most various album Taylor has done. That's not meant to criticize Taylor's earlier efforts — I'm a fan of even his most dolorous work. But it's nice to hear him sounding so healthy.

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