Still Ambivalent – The Essential James Taylor
One of the many great things that’s come out of the recent major label rush to release huge collections of classic artists’ work in affordable box sets and greatest hits packages is that it encourages people to go back and reassess the music they grew up with. It’s all a little overwhelming and kind of feels like an end of times dance, a last money grab from the labels before nobody pays anything for music anywhere. It’s a shitty situation in a lot of ways. Sure, I love that I’ve received box sets in the mail of the complete works (or periods of work) of artists like Paul Simon, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, CCR and Bob Dylan among others, but on another level, it does seem like a cheapening and commodifying of art. What does Leonard Cohen – for example – think of the fact that you can buy 45 years worth of his life and work for $69 on Amazon. I know, cry me a river! Rock stars have been overpaid for their whole careers and I should care? Perhaps I’m just attached to how much fun it was when I was younger to go to the record store and buy an album, a single album, and to play it to death before moving on and listening to something else.
A little less overwhelming than these box sets that clump through the mailbox are the continual flow of greatest hits or essential songs from the same generation of artists. They allow for a quicker snapshot and a comfortable reassessment that doesn’t take a month of one’s life like listening through the complete Dylan box set just did. Such sets have rekindled my interest in Santana, David Bromberg and introduced me to Merry Clayton. But, as with everything else, there’s a downside.
When ‘The Essential James Taylor’ arrived the other day, my interest was piqued. Here was an artist I hadn’t given any time or attention to in decades. Like a lot of people of my generation, Taylor’s music formed a bridge between ‘my music’ and ‘my parent’s music.’ He along with Paul Simon and John Denver were artists we could listen to together on car trips in relative peace and with only a few groans from the back seat. I saw Taylor in concert once in 1984 with a girlfriend who just loved everything about him. It was a very dull and listless performance, and my reaction – along with some other things of course – lead to the rapid decline of our relationship shortly after that. In the decades that followed, I don’t think I listened to Taylor at all, though from the nineties on, I kept reading about how his music had matured and that his guitar chops were wonderful and that his songs reflected the realities that many people shared growing up in premillennial society. It was good to read this, but I can’t recall ever that it was enough to send me out in search of his music.
I wished James Taylor no ill. He was in the press a lot in the seventies. His relationship with Carly Simon, his various addictions and tragedies were great gossip page fodder. It was good to know that he’d gotten past most of his problems, and the photos I saw in The Rolling Stone and other journals portrayed an affable man who I imagined I would enjoy having as a neighbor and chatting with over the fence. I was glad, in some small way, that he was out there and doing well. But, at that time, my tastes ran almost strictly to world music, jazz and traditional roots and somehow in the back of my mind the excesses and stupid drugs of the seventies were still embodied in what I imagined Taylor’s new music would sound like. So, I still didn’t listen.
Then, a few years ago, I was listening to a broadcast of highlights from Neil Young’s Bridge Concerts on the radio and James Taylor came on singing ‘Fire and Rain’, his most famous song. It sounded beautiful, and I was amazed that he could effortlessly express such clear emotions about an event that happened so long ago into a performance. It remains one of popular music’s greatest songs and is perhaps the one time in Taylor’s career where he has rendered a focused, perfect evocation of a moment in life. He was able to translate a personal tragedy into something universal. It is a song that has survived hundreds of interpretations around an endless circle of campfires and still remained intact.
Shortly after the Bridge Concert performance, I received a copy of ‘Amchitka’, the Greenpeace benefit CD in the mail and Taylor’s concert from 1970 in Vancouver that was featured on one of the discs was also very enjoyable. Maybe I liked James Taylor’s music after all. Yet, when I heard some of his songs on the radio – ‘Shower The People’ and ‘How Sweet It Is’ come to mind – I changed the station as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I’ve had the same experience listening through, really trying to listen through ‘The Essential James Taylor.’ I’ve come to the conclusion that James Taylor’s music simply rubs me the wrong way and I feel kinda shitty about it.
So, what’s the problem? He’s a really good acoustic guitar player. The sound and tone he gets out of his instrument is often gorgeous and his melodies and lyrical sense are certainly pleasant enough. I can see what my friends are on about when they tell me how much they like his recent music and that it reflects a mature perspective and speaks to people who are raising families and trying to live with compassion in a cutthroat world. I get it. And, like I intimated, I have the feeling that he’s a nice fella with his heart in the right place. I feel like if we knew each other, we’d agree on a lot of things and that he’d be a good guy to have in your corner. You’d want his name on a petition to save local wetlands or a historic landmark, but, damn, his music is just so unfulfilling. Where others hear wry humour or a certain ironic wisdom, I feel smugness and a fear of committing artistically. There’s a subliminal fear of getting dirty, or wrestling with untidy emotions. Struggle is completely absent and I don’t buy it. It feels as if James Taylor, the man, hovers over his songs and never really takes a bite out of them.
In the end, it’s probably not that Taylor’s music is inherently spineless; it’s more likely that very little of it ‘speaks to me.’ I don’t recognize my own experiences or those of my friends in the songs. I don’t find the situations he sings about compelling – whether I agree with his politics or not. There’s something in the totality of his music that is mildly distasteful and for all of the liberal causes he supports, there’s still something so white middle class, squeaky clean, and saccharine about his songs. There’s no great disappointments or stories of loss and redemption. I know there’s more to music than that but it makes me uneasy that there’s no rock bottom in his songs, but – more to the point- there’s no elevation or unbridled joy either..
I didn’t set out when I spent a week with James Taylor to dump on him like this. I feel mean, but in truth, I had hoped– like I did recently when going back through Paul Simon’s catalogue, re-listening to Joni Mitchell and – yes – even to CSN – to find something of worth that I’d overlooked or my ears hadn’t picked up on when I was younger. I am moved by music that is ragged, flawed and intuitive – that reflects the human condition as I know it, which is why for all of -say – Bob Dylan’s latter day weirdness and guttural croaks, I’d rather listen to him anytime because as a whole, ‘The Essential James Taylor’ is one of the blandest 2 CD sets I’ve ever heard. Sorry.
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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