Taylor epitomised the gentle, introspective singer/songwriter movement of the early 70s, but
seems to have disappeared under the radar of serious critical acclaim. John Earls argues his case.
He’s a strange presence in the music industry, is James Taylor. He released some of the best music of the 70s, but he’s rarely mentioned in the pantheon of great singer-songwriters alongside peers such as Neil Young or Paul Simon. True, Taylor hasn’t made a great album since Hourglass in 1997.
But his most recent album, Before This World, was a surprise US No. 1 in 2015, and there’s a sense that, with the right push, Taylor could easily have an overdue re-evaluation of his career to ease him back into the spotlight. A Sunday afternoon legend slot at Glastonbury, anyone?
Taylor’s reassessment would be aided by Rhino’s straightforward boxset of the six albums he made for Warner, a document that features the majority of his most famous songs. It doesn’t contain Taylor’s self-titled 1968 debut album on Apple, so there’s no Carolina In My Mind. But you do get How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Walking Man, Fire And Rain and of course Taylor’s timeless take on Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend.
Anyone who thinks Taylor was perhaps only a fitfully inspired singer, maybe ‘only’ a singles artist even at his height, needs to investigate One Man Dog, which doesn’t waste a note despite featuring 18 songs across its 38 minutes (true, the sleeve of Taylor in a canoe with a dog is a total horror show).
Sweet Baby James is the album generally regarded as the go-to, and it’s certainly the archetype of Taylor’s unfussy poignancy. When you’re capable of expressing such hard-won optimism with the elegant simplicity Taylor imbues in Sunny Skies, it’s perhaps easier to fathom why Taylor can be overlooked. How does he make music sound so effortless, damn it? It’s a big mistake, because it’s far harder to be as beautifully sparse as Taylor is over most of these six albums than it is to wig out and pretend anything goes, like Taylor’s prog-rock contemporaries.
It’s true that there are missteps along the way. Walking Man was a relative flop and, while Hello Old Friend should join its title track as a classic-in-retrospect, they’re surrounded by a few songs where Taylor really is casually phoning it in, seemingly overworked so that a dashed-off cover of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land really should have been saved for a B-side at best.
One patchy album out of six isn’t a bad average and, by the time of 1976’s In The Pocket, Taylor was back to his casual best. Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, Art Garfunkel and, on the sumptuous Shower The People, Taylor’s then-wife Carly Simon, are among the guests on an easy-going, mighty tuneful bookend to the period.
Rhino do a decent job of remastering, overseen by Taylor’s producer Peter Asher, who also provides clear-sighted sleevenotes. There’s a free lithograph if ordered direct for £95 from Rhino, though it’s available for £80 elsewhere. A straight-up boxset as pleasing and unshowy as Taylor’s music.
Sweet Baby James (1970)
Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971)
One Man Dog (1972)
Walking Man (1974)
In The Pocket (1976)