|Album cover for "Before This World," James Taylor, 2015.|
|James Taylor, 2015. No, I'm not related to him.|
James Taylor’s music has always reminded me of autumn. There’s a wistful, elegiac feel to it, a certain unhurried melancholy that reminds me of the leaves changing colors. Taylor’s songs have always been warm and accessible, and his sensitive lyrics show his deep compassion.
Taylor’s new album, “Before This World,” was released in June, and it’s his first album of new material in thirteen years, since 2002’s “October Road.” In the intervening years Taylor hadn’t disappeared, as he released a Christmas album, an album of covers, and two live albums. But his songwriting muse seemed to have dried up, and in interviews promoting “Before This World” Taylor has spoken of consciously taking time off to write another album, saying he wasn’t sure he would ever record another album of original songs. I’m happy he took the time to write “Before This World,” as it’s an excellent record.
“Before This World” isn’t a departure from Taylor’s well-established musical style, but that’s not a bad thing. As Taylor said in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I’m not the type of musician who reinvents himself over and over again. I am a slow evolution of a style of recording and writing, and I do think that in ways I get better at it.” Taylor’s beautiful high, yearning voice hasn’t changed very much over the years, and it’s a comfort to hear him again.
The songs on “Before This World” show Taylor’s range as a songwriter, as he covers topics from the war in Afghanistan to the Red Sox victory in the 2004 World Series. All of the songs are excellent. Sure, “Angels of Fenway” might be a little cheesy, but if my favorite baseball team hadn’t won the World Series in 86 years, I’d probably write a sappy song about it too. My favorite songs on the album are “Montana,” “SnowTime,” and the gorgeous medley of “Before This World/Jolly Springtime.” “Montana” is a lovely ballad, as the narrator tells us of his affection for his home. “SnowTime” is about finding the spirit of summer, even when you’re in Toronto and it’s the middle of winter. As Taylor sings, “Someone summoned up summer just strumming on an old guitar/and every note was the antidote to December.” “Before This World/Jolly Springtime” is a medley of new Taylor songs that both sound like they could be old folk songs. Sting adds a lovely harmony vocal to “Before This World,” which also features Yo-Yo Ma on cello. “Jolly Springtime” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album, as Taylor sings, “Thin, thin, the moment is thin/ever so narrow the now/everybody say got to live in today/don’t nobody know how.”
“Before This World” had a huge first week on the charts in June, and amazingly enough, became Taylor’s very first Number One album. Taylor has scored a Top Ten album in every decade since the 1970’s, 12 Top Ten albums in all, and now he finally has a Number One. That’s a pretty nice accomplishment.
The last song on “Before This World” is a lovely version of the old Scottish folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” As I listen to the song again for this review, the next song that starts playing on my iTunes is “Something in the Way She Moves,” recorded in 1968 for Taylor’s first album, on the Beatles’ Apple label. Amazingly, Taylor’s high, pure voice sounds just about the same on both songs. It’s good to have him back again.