James Taylor can do no wrong. Even that time he released a Christmas album, that was still mysteriously OK by me, and I hate Christmas albums with a passion. (Bob Dylan’s? PASS.) Since Sweet Baby James was released in 1969, through countless ups, downs, depressions, loves, divorces, and a nasty heroin habit, Taylor consistently writes beautiful, introspective folk rock. My mother loves him. So do I.
Today’s particular album, 2002’s October Road, is maybe the best of the work to come out of his later life. Unlike 1996’s Hourglass, which broods on past failures and chances not taken, or Taylor’s recent slide into comfortable look-back-in-nostalgia tours, October Road is an album that revisits old themes from a new vantage point. In 2001, at the age of 53, Taylor remarried; three months later, a surrogate mother delivered twin sons to the newlyweds. October Road is the sound of an old man discovering life again.
The sound is exactly what fans of James Taylor know and love: there’s really no better word for him, his music, his lyrics, or his approach to his art than “gentle.” The album’s arrangements are by no means innovative or moving in new directions; aside from a lovely jazz turn on “Mean Old Man,” or the bluegrass harmonies of the title track, everything here is familiar. Sometimes, however, “familiar” is no bad thing; and with Taylor it’s the backbone of his life’s work.
The opener, “September Grass,” kicks off with contemplative guitar work and the sort of neighborly small talk common to small towns. Taylor has described his guitar style as “a finger-picking style that was meant to be like a piano, as if my thumb were my left hand, and my first, second, and third fingers were my right hand*”; that attention to detail and ability to switch quickly between notes, probably best showcased in the breathtaking “You Can Close Your Eyes” from 1971, is still in full force thirty years later.
Other songs are less contemplative and more joyful: “Whenever You’re Ready,” with its full chorus of brass instruments and deceptively quiet verse, is the sort of song to dance to at a wedding, and “Baby Buffalo” is whimsical. “Mean Old Man,” an original composition arranged like an old jazz standard, is particularly knowing, and Taylor seems to really enjoy poking fun at himself:
For me, though, the best songs on the album are the ones which tackle the concept and feelings surrounding of leaving home, rather than returning to it. “Carry Me On My Way” addresses the uncertainty of aging and the world we leave behind us, while “Belfast to Boston” addresses the Irish heritage in Taylor’s past and his unwillingness to support more recent conflicts in Ireland. “My Travelling Star,” the jewel in this crown of an album, talks about wanderlust and the conflicting desires to settle and to roam: “Shame on me for sure/ For one more highway song.”
There’s no mistaking that James Taylor is a staple of mom-and-pop rock, and rightly so: our parents’ generation grew up with Taylor’s voice as a major cultural presence in their lives. (My best friend’s mom tells a great story about making a pilgrimage hundreds of miles to personally deliver hand-strung love beads to him.) I’m willing to bet that for many of us, Taylor was one of the first musical voices we heard as children.
A friend asked me once if I would cry when David Bowie passed away, and I had to say no – he’s too far removed from me, as a person and as a presence. James Taylor, on the other hand, is like an uncle who you’ve never met and who lives far away; you may rarely hear from him, but you know somehow he cares about you. As he once said in concert, totally impromptu and with a gentle look on his face, “It’s surprising how much I love you, in fact, in that, you know, I don’t know you.” It’s okay, James. It’s mutual.
* In Timothy White’s biography of Taylor, called Long Ago And Far Away.