Graded on a Curve:
James Taylor,
Sweet Baby James

Before I attack James Taylor like a rabid dog, I should say that I like him—or at least I like a couple of his songs, which is more than I can say about such contemporaries of his like Seals & Crofts, Joni Mitchell, Loggins & Messina, and all the other folkie singer-songwriters who sought inspiration not from the world at large, but from their own navels. The sixties left everybody burnt out, creepy-eyed, or dead, and everybody made for high ground as the flood of psychic casualties hit the counterculture like a tsunami of bad vibes, looking for soothing and gentle consolation from singer-songwriters like Taylor.

I suppose I should feel bad about hating a guy who seems so likeable, but I’m far from alone. He’s the fella who inspired the great Lester Bangs to write a long essay entitled, “James Taylor Marked for Death,” and Robert Christgau to close his brief and negative review of Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon with the immortal words, “Interesting, intricate, unlistenable.” And that was after Christgau critiqued “the conniving, self-pitying voice that is [Taylor’s] curse.”

1970’s Sweet Baby James made Taylor an overnight star, in large part because his voice was so damnably soothing. It’s going to be alright, his every vocal inflection seemed to say, and the only problem was that his voice was the personification of utter wussification. His attempts at funk and soul (see “Lo and Behold”) are risible, and he’s nobody’s idea of a blues man (see “Steamroller”), not with that voice that is too white for words. And along with the album’s good tunes, you get outright monstrosities like “Sunny Skies,” which is too vapid by miles.

And his take on Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah,” which makes me want to tear my ears off and toss them into the sink’s garbage disposal unit. And when it comes to the blues, as I mentioned previously, forget it. One would expect “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip on Me” to be a misogynistic tough guy number, but sweet baby James comes across as pleading and craven, and a pathetic creature and “good boy” in general. Good boys don’t sing the blues, they play treacly folk songs, which is why I don’t believe the organ- and horns-dominated blues “Steamroller” for a minute. “A hefty heap of steaming junk” he calls himself, and all I can say is he’s a hefty heap of steaming something.

Taylor reached his apotheosis on the too-friendly “You’ve Got a Friend” off 1971’s Mud Slide Slim. It’s the song that established him for good as the penultimate nice if ineffectual fellow, one who is too sweet for words, and who made Cat Stevens look downright macho. But Sweet Baby James mines the same vein, as Taylor demonstrates in “Blossom,” which has a nice melody but is a perfect example of wimp rock. And on “Anywhere Like Heaven” he tries to sell himself as a country boy, complete with his own pasture, who finds the city too much. Elton John could pull such a move off because you knew he was playing a character; Taylor comes across as too sincere to play roles, and sounds like an affluent urban fake.

He goes the same country route on “Sweet Baby James,” and it works if you don’t listen to the words because the melody is both lovely and memorable. As for “Lo and Behold,” it’s unfortunately not the Dylan and the Band song off The Basement Tapes but a failed attempt at soul about a “well on the hill” whose only asset is its brevity. I’ve always liked “Country Road” despite myself, because it’s perky and has what could pass for a rock beat. Taylor was a junkie at the time, not a walker of country roads, but like Elton John he manages to pull this one off by play-acting, his odious sincerity for once on hold.

“Suite for 20 G” is the album’s big surprise, a pop song that sounds like nothing else on the LP. “Let it rain/Sweet Mary Jane” he sings, while actual drums and instruments and shit knock out the pretty melody. Sure, it’s too precious for words, but for once he stops pretending to be the rustified guy in the blue flannel shirt on the cover of his album, especially when the horns and funky rhythm kick in. Good God, he’s suddenly Mr. Excitement! With electric guitars, blaring horns, and the whole nine yards!

More songs like this may have saved Taylor from his reputation as the King of Wimpy Introspection, kicking the asses of the likes of Jackson Browne and John Denver, but no more were forthcoming, which leaves us with the lovely “Fire and Rain,” a song I’ve always loved. It’s bona fide touching, rather than saccharine, and for once that voice of his is appropriate for the material. Trials, tribulations, who knew Taylor, junkie or no, had it in him? I especially like the drums in the middle, and the lines “sweet dreams and flying machines/In pieces on the ground,” to say nothing of the lines, “I always thought I’d see you once again.”

James Taylor is the poster boy for the early seventies retreat from engagement with the world, an escapist whose songs resonated with so many people because they were soft, soothing—like the toilet paper preferred by the bears in that television commercial—and guaranteed to save you from all the dark shit going down out there on the streets. Forget the Manson Family; James Taylor was the tonic for all those bad vibes that threatened to harsh an entire generation’s buzz. You can condemn him for that, or you can congratulate him for performing a necessary public service. I know where I stand. Where do you?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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  • ck70

    We get it. You don’t… Although agreed that blues is probably not JT’s forte, I’m not sure one of the fathers/grandfathers of American folk music> Americana, deserves your kind of coal raking. But, you know what they say about opinions…

  • Joe Como

    As if introspection is anything to be ashamed of or “wimpy” as you put it. So much macho posturing… it makes one wonder.

    As for James Taylor, I can’t really disagree with your overall assessment. I feel like Bluto on the staircase in “Animal House” whenever I hear his music. But one of River Phoenix’s best movies “Running on Empty” gave me a bit of appreciation for “Fire and Rain”, so I’ll give that one a pass. The rest can be safely ignored as 70’s bong-sucking gone out of control.

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