Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Immortals #84 - James Taylor

With the his success of ultra-popular, triple-platinum-selling second album, James Taylor became first bonafide superstar that heralded the "singer/songwriter" era, a genre that was differentiated from other music made by people who both wrote and sung their own songs in the early 1970s by its transparent willingness to veer into gratingly self-absorbed and sonically derivative territories. And considering that this was a generation of musicians who were essentially just trying to do bad impressions of Bob Dylan, that's really saying something.

Sweet Baby James is packed with the hallmarks that defined the singer/songwriter tag, as Taylor paints his tracks in broad, bucolic strokes of Americana gleaned from the country and folk of in the previous decade, and polishes them to a high gloss of mellifluousness that consistently overwhelms those barely-there moments that hint of intelligence and even a faintly dark sense of humor contained within them. In places, it's exceptionally easy to hear the title track, or "Blossom", or the iconic "Fire and Rain" and find them perfectly pleasant for what they are, which is "perfectly pleasant", I guess. But much of this album is devoted to the perfunctory task of keeping appearances of depth, be they in the shamefully thin "character study" of "Sunny Skies" or a similarly de rigueur attempt at "interpreting" the American songbook, such as with Stephen Forster's staple/chestnut "Oh! Susanna" (you know, because James was down with the whole folkie-thing.)

Which I guess begs the question of just how "good" these songs even needed to be in the first place. The "singer/songwriter" was a pop designation, and folks like Taylor were simply trying to make a name for themselves in the industry with nice songs that people liked to listen to. There's an honesty there, sure. If there wasn't, how could it so often veer into the irritating level of insistent sincerity that we so often associate with the "guy with a guitar?" And much of the music produced by Taylor and his contemporaries (or, as I'd argue, his betters) such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and Carole King was truly beautiful, and even sometimes deeply affecting. And hey, if selling records with a nice ditty was really the only goal he had, then Taylor was as successful a performer as anybody could possibly become by that measure.

But still, there's a lot that's missing from Dylan's influence in Taylor and the seemingly endless parade of singer/songwriters who followed his example. Dylan's was a wicked wit and he was a truly inveterate bastard, and when he turned his ire toward a subject of personal scorn (especially himself) he'd waste not one syllable in the course of intellectually and emotionally eviscerating both it and the listener. And when he stole your song, it was to show us something about where we came from and why we're here now- and at least he had the integrity to admit so outright.

A few singer/songwriters who embodied Dylan's ethos and made tremendous records (I'm thinking of Randy Newman here, who's a goddamned national treasure as far as I'm concerned), but the majority of those who followed him never even tried. James Taylor never had any illusions that he could ever be so vital, ever matter that much. At least he was as forthright as Dylan was when addressing that particular fact. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2000, he admitted:

I've taken no more risk than I absolutely had to. I'm not changing the world, and I don't have anything to prove.
Well, I guess that's your prerogative, James. But if that's really the case, then what makes you think we could give a fuck about anything you have to say?


Brendan K said...

Although, for the record, "Two-Lane Blacktop" is a totally cool movie. So good for you, James.

Margaret said...

I got love for James Taylor, but he always makes me want to cut myself.