In the early ‘70s, James Taylor came to define the “confessional” pop songwriter. Music critic William Ruhlmann articulated the troubled artist’s appeal perfectly: “Taylor didn’t break your heart; he understood that it was already broken, as was his own, and he offered comfort.” It’s little wonder then that a reworking of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” ranks as the highest-charting hit of Taylor’s career. His simple arrangements and calming delivery have always acted like an aloe soothing our wounds — one whose healing properties we trust all the more knowing what we know about the singer’s own suffering. While Before This World may not provide the same succor as Sweet Baby James or Mud Slide Slim…, Taylor remains a welcome voice when we “need a helping hand and nothing is going right.”
Before This World can certainly be taken as a familiar shoulder to lean or cry on. Taylor, a Boston native, endures the 86-year championship drought alongside fellow Red Sox fans on “Angels of Fenway”, a song that playfully and sweetly couples a tale of unflinching fandom with the lifelong bond between a boy and his grandmother. Those wont to roam (“Stretch of the Highway”), eager to retreat from city living (“Montana”), or indebted for being given a second chance (“Watchin’ Over Me”) will also find a kindred spirit here, as punchy horns, longing keys, and soft harmonies provide Taylor with his signature light accompaniment.
Having admittedly put songwriting on the backburner for the better part of a decade, Taylor, baseball fan and songwriter, unsurprisingly only bats around .500 on this record. Not even a guest spot from Sting can invigorate some of the record’s more traditional, tedious fare. But a ballad like “You and I Again”, Taylor’s voice crisp and passionate as ever as he learns to embrace and appreciate the precious time we have with that special someone, reveals that Taylor’s gifts as a performer remain undiminished. Before This World, though not a particularly remarkable album, reacquaints us with an old friend, one who we wish would visit more often.
Essential Tracks: “You and I Again”, “Stretch of the Highway”