Album Review: James Taylor – Before This World

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I’m not an impartial critic. It is probably best that I explain how important James Taylor has been in my life since 1971, before I start providing a view on his latest album Before This World. I stumbled across him when a school friend gave me his third album Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon (they don’t name albums like that these days), to play on my old mono record player. That act of generosity transformed my listening to music for nearly 45 years. I’ve thought about the reasons behind this but have failed to find a suitable explanation. I have remained loyal and appreciative of the American’s music-making ever since. I am a real fan and rather ashamed to admit to it.

There have been highs and lows in the intervening years, similar to Taylor’s drug addiction, but throughout, his lyrics and music composition have hit a chord with me. Waiting for 13 years for the latest Taylor album could have ended with expectation way above what can be reasonably expected. But I am not left with an ounce of disappointment, because while he has aged, he has maintained his sharp edge of observation and optimism that were the central pillars of his earlier work. Before This World is a diverse and considered album that doesn’t hit the highest peaks of his career, but there are enough highlights and a level of consistency to keep me and other Taylor fans enthralled.

Much of the album has been released early, through a variety of sources such as his website or the New York Times, but listening to the album from start to finish there is a flow and edge that doesn’t hit you when you take in individual tracks. It starts in a reflective mood with Today, Today, Today, as Taylor considers his life and the next, more morbid stage. As always, he provides insight but never relies on negativity. He looks forward with optimism that reflects a more settled home environment, with teenage children and the affection of his third wife. The second track You And I Again is a testament to his current family situation and the impact his current wife has had on his life and well being. It has been included in many concerts over recent years so it has become familiar to many of his fans. It lacks freshness for me but I’m pleased it is there.

As the album develops, it starts to hit some major high points. The tribute to his beloved Boston Red Sox – Angels Of Fenway, Stretch Of The Highway and Montana follow well trodden paths for his songwriting (personal interests, travelling and places). All tracks rely on the voices and support of familiar musicians including Steve Gadd and Michael Landau. The highway track is a particular favourite with its reflection on the importance of General Motors and Dwight Eisenhower on his touring decisions. A recent performance on Jools Holland where the host played the piano solo works better than the one played here by Larry Goldings, but it doesn’t detract too much. It is still an apparently effortless piece of songwriting.

Watchin’ Over Me and Snow Time benefit from extended length and shifts in tone and atmosphere. This is particularly true of the latter track which starts with a sense that it is going to be too twee, but quickly transforms into much more robust and interesting themes. The title track moves into a traditional folk track with references to May time and a sense that a maypole will soon appear. Nonetheless, it reminds me of an earlier stage in his career, especially in his willingness to break new ground such as in the album One Man Dog. The tour de force appears next with Far Afghanistan – a track that makes clear the waste of youthful life as a soldier and the negative impact of an invasion on a society far away from USA. The integral use of traditional Afghan instruments gives this track an authenticity that provides a rich backdrop to the lyrics. I love its depth because it is so distant from the softer compositions that are frequently played on the radio. The final track Wild Mountain Thyme is the classic Francis McPeake song with deep Scottish heritage that has recently been the final song at Taylor’s concerts. This version doesn’t quite capture the joy and rich vocals of his live performances but it is still an uplifting end to the long awaited album.

As I reflect on the album I wonder where it sits in the ranking of all Taylor albums. It is high up there and I suspect it will go down well with his fans. As Taylor ages, his voice has remained strong and true. Despite this, the years do roll along and I suspect there will not be too many other Taylor albums for me to appreciate. That’s why I will continue to listen to this one with interest and excitement in the same way I listened to the first album so many years ago. He is a damn fine musician and has a confidence and optimism that enables him to push the boundaries without losing sight of the need to entertain. I like the album and I suspect I will find new messages and interest in the years ahead.

Frank Norris