James Taylor’s thoughts turn to life’s autumn on “October Road”
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by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 13, 2002) – At the outset of his performance with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood last month, James Taylor told the record-breaking audience of over 26,000 that among the songs he had planned to play that evening were three new ones.
“I know you hate to hear new songs, but don’t worry,” he joked, “they sound just like the old ones.”
It was a telling remark, as much for what it revealed about Taylor’s remarkable equanimity as for the truth of the matter -- that James Taylor has carved out a trademark style and sound that has varied only slightly over the course of his remarkable 30-plus years as a recording artist.
Of course his fans wouldn’t have it any other way. And they won’t be disappointed by “October Road” (Columbia), his terrific new album which came out earlier this week.
Several years in the making, and his first album of new songs since 1997’s Grammy Award-winning “Hourglass,” Taylor’s “October Road” is the effort of a mature, confident singer-songwriter who doesn’t have to go chasing the latest musical trends to make his new material sound fresh and inviting.
Rather, the songs on “October Road” are vintage Taylor, offering glimpses of a grown-up sweet baby James whose concerns now focus heavily on family relationships, mortality, love and spirituality.
Not that these weren’t always themes that Taylor explored in his patented, country-inflected folk-pop songs. Rather, he brings a new perspective to them – that of a late-in-life father and husband who has found new joys to celebrate at the same time that life has delivered a series of blows in the loss of a father, an older brother, a best friend and a longtime bandmate.
“These things continually find their way into my lyrics -- family relationships and love relationships,” said Taylor in a phone interview earlier this week from his summer home near Lenox, where he lives with his wife, the former Caroline “Kim” Smedvig, and their twin 17-month-old boys.
“Some are emotionally true but not factually so,” said Taylor, who appears on the NBC “Today” show on Friday as part of the program’s “Summer Concert Series” (“Today” airs from 7-10 a.m. via WNYT, Channel 13, Albany, N.Y.) and on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” on Tuesday, August 20. “In any case, I take what ever I can get.”
What Taylor got this time out was in one sense a seasonal song cycle. Besides the title track -- which Taylor says is named after the Berkshires’ own October Mountain – the album includes “On the 4th of July,” a love song about a romance that could possibly have blossomed at Tanglewood during one of Taylor’s Independence Day concerts, and “September Grass,” by Taylor’s childhood friend, musician John Sheldon. The latter is one of two of the album’s dozen songs not written by Taylor, the other being the holiday standard, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” bringing the seasonal song cycle full circle.
When the seasonal, cyclical nature of the album is pointed out to Taylor, he pleads innocent. “These things become apparent as you’re working on the album or sequencing it,” he said. “It’s never intentional. You begin to see things, see threads running through it. There’s an unconscious element revealed over time.”
Musically, the album is a familiar blend of Taylor’s signature folk-pop balladry and r&b-inflected, upbeat pop. If it were the late-1970s instead of 2002, the horn-peppered, Latin r&b of “Whenever You’re Ready” – featuring some of the best soul singing Taylor’s ever committed to tape -- would undoubtedly find a home at the top of the pop charts alongside songs like “You’re Smiling Face” and “Up on the Roof.” Taylor’s mid-career discovery of Brazilian music continues to surface in the bossa nova pulse running through that tune and “On the 4th of July.” Other ethnic touches creep in elsewhere, such as an Irish march with synthesized bagpipes and pennywhistle on “Belfast to Boston” and a Ladysmith Black Mambazo-like choral chant at the end of “September Grass.”
Family is also a recurring theme throughout the album, both lyrically and musically in that Taylor’s daughter, Sally, and his wife both lend harmonies on several tracks. A number of songs explicitly address family relationships. “My Traveling Star” talks about a father whose home is the road. (It also references Taylor’s earlier song, “Walking Man.”) “Raised Up Family” talks about what polite society calls “family weakness.” In “Carry Me On My Way,” the singer “feels like I’m wearing my father’s clothes/Singing a song my brother would sing.”
“It’s another one of those sort of non-religious hymns,” said Taylor of the latter. “On the last album there was ‘Up From Your Life.’ It’s a type of song that I write, generally reflective, a kind of spiritual. It comes out of a spiritual need, although I don’t know if it satisfies one or not.”
The album’s penultimate song, “Baby Buffalo,” is perhaps its most intriguing. The song opens with breathing sounds and Taylor singing as if through a cloud – as if the listener is drifting in and out of consciousness. In its hypnotic, dreamlike juxtaposition of images of birth and death, babies clinging to their parents and old people dying, the song recalls the climactic scene from the film “2001.”
“That song seems to be about four or five different hospital visits over the last decade,” said Taylor. “I wasn’t really consciously writing about those experiences. I always claim that writing is unconscious and channelling.
“This particular song was completely mysterious. It wrote itself very quickly and the chorus came along some time later. It came out of a dream and my remembering it, which I seldom do, and that’s where the baby buffalo came from.”
“October Road” is something of the end of a cycle or a milestone itself. It marks the fulfillment of Taylor’s current contract with Columbia Records, a relationship he has enjoyed for the last 25 years.
Taylor says he’s not sure yet what his next move will be. In any case, it will be at least a couple of years before he is ready to begin thinking about his next recording.
In the meantime, Taylor looks forward to performing many of the new songs for his fans.
“Without seeming crass, I want as many people to hear it as I can,” he said. “I feel particularly on this one, I’d like people to want to hear the songs live, so that we could incorporate a lot of them into the concerts.
“I’m just hoping it becomes known and that the people who come to my concerts have this material in mind as well as the songs on ‘Greatest Hits Volume I and II.’ ”
Here’s betting they will.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 16, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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