James Taylor, "Before This World" (Concord Records)
In more than four decades, James Taylor has seen fire and rain, showered the people with love and steamrolled his way into millions of hearts.
That would be enough for many, but JT has more musical work to do.
Taylor's new album, "Before This World," arrives 13 years after his last studio album of original songs. And it does nothing to threaten his legacy.
The 67-year-old has retained his abilities to craft and deliver a song. His simple, elegant acoustic fretwork and supple tenor sound much as they did in his 1970s hit-making heyday. The new collection sounds familiar without being a retread.
"Montana" evokes "Sweet Baby James" in meter, mood and melody. And "SnowTime" will certainly raise comparisons to "Mexico," though this one's set in Toronto and he sings about decamping to the United States' neighbor to the north instead of the south. Was there an obscure, equal-time clause tucked into NAFTA that required Taylor to pen an ode to Canada after Mexico?
Not everything's a grand-slam: "Angels of Fenway," a ballad for fans of his beloved Boston team, is by no means a strikeout but is unabashedly homer-ish and the nostalgia gets a bit thick in spots. Of course, that sentiment wouldn't be shared by New Englanders, who are prone to preface Yankees with "damn" or something worse.
Two songs elevate the album from good to great: "Before This World" and "Far Afghanistan." The first is among the finest of what Taylor calls his "agnostic hymns." This stately piece features standout support from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Sting. The former weaves soulful lines and the latter handles the harmonies beautifully (and at least one-third less Sting-y). The second is a well-told and played tale that doesn't so much criticize war as it questions the assumptions we make about the faraway lands we invade.
Overall, "Before This World" is a Taylor-made collection from someone who has earned his keep. How sweet it is to hear such solid, smart and at times sublime songcraft from this journeyman.
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