Before this World
Concord Records 35270-02
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The early hype on James Taylor's first album in seven years—and first collection of new material in thirteen—is that he had entered the Way Back Machine and retrieved a record reminiscent of the days in which he was Sweet Baby James. Well… that's asking for a bit much; he's 67 now, and there are a lot of miles on that dulcet voice. No—he does not sing like it's 1980 all over again. That said, if you ask me if I'd trade voices with him as he sounds now, I'd reply: "You're damn right I would. In a heartbeat!" Step one in enjoying Taylor's new record is to brush aside hyperbolic press releases and enjoy Before this World for what it is: a very pleasant and non-taxing release filled with catchy melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and high-sheen production values.
Step two is to have realistic expectations and be forgiving of limitations. First of all, you need to need to overlook the fact that this album is a few songs short of a full CD—just ten tracks, none longer than 5:48 and several around or under the three-minute mark. One indication of the thinness of the new material is that he closes the record with a very old chestnut he didn't write, "Wild Mountain Thyme." A second is that just about everything is so mid-tempo that the CD takes three or four spins before the tunes distinguish themselves from each other. Midrange best describes Taylor's voice these days. Ironically, he can still go up grab a note, and hold it, but there's not much bottom or grit anymore. On the other hand, longevity provides a few ways to compensate—like a nice collection of friends who can lend a hand, and access to a good producer who knows what to add to flatter your gifts. Is that Yo Yo Ma we hear on cello in "You and I Again" and "Before This World?" Yes. And that's also Sting singing backup song, and a host of respected sessions musicians, including longtime collaborator Andrea Zonn on fiddle and vocals. Producer Dave O'Donnell's touches are everywhere—splashes of robust backing vocals here, a horn section there, and lush arrangements everywhere. The new songs are solid, several are terrific, and one or two skirt the sentimentality danger zone. (Sorry Red Sox Nation, but "Angels of Fenway" is one of the latter; if this song were about the Yankees you'd reach for the airsickness bag.) My favorites including the funky "Stretch of the Highway," with its bluesy horn riffs and tight harmonies; and "Watchin' Over Me," a folk gospel song of gratitude and redemption. I also quite enjoyed "Snowtime," whose theme any New Englander can- appreciate: being in a cold place—wintry Toronto in this case—but adrift more in dreams of sun-dappled climes than in the surrounding storm. Never mind that it evokes Mexico in both its lyrics and the tune of a song of that name he recorded in 1975. There's also a very fine political song, "Far Afghanistan," that humanizes war and transcends conflict without being didactic or preachy. So let's forget the vintage James Taylor comparisons—we still have all that classic material if we need a shot of nostalgia—and enjoy this late-career effort. Maybe this isn't a great album—but it's a good one. Appropriately, Before this World opens with a song titled "Today Today Today," which includes the line: "The world will open wide/And I'm running with this tide." It's one of several songs that bespeak contentment—and who could wish more than that?