Graded on a Curve:
James Taylor,
Greatest Hits

I went to Carolina in my mind once. It left me sitting by the side of the highway outside Richmond, Virginia. I probably should have been checked out by a mechanic before I left.

I’ve been reading David Browne’s Fire and Rain, which purports to tell the “lost story of 1970,” and he spends a lot of time talking about James Taylor. 1970 was the year Sweet Baby James rocketed Taylor to stardom, but what I simply cannot fathom is why. Taylor was (is) the archetype of the sensitive singer-songwriter, a folk rocker of modest gifts and zero charisma, the kind of guy who performs live while sitting on a chair.

Browne quotes some Taylor fans circa 1970 at Duke University, and their praise is… underwhelming. “It’s nice, relaxing stuff,” said one. “You don’t get too excited about it.” And from such stuff are musical legends made.

In troth, Taylor’s rise to popularity isn’t that hard to figure out. By 1970 the Love, Drugs and Protest Generation was burned out–on spooky acid trips, Charles Manson, My Lai, you name it–and acid rock was the last thing they wanted to hear. Taylor’s music was the perfect palliative for the ugly end of the sixties–his gentle voice, a harbor in the storm.

I’ve never understood why anyone would want to own a James Taylor record, but if you really must have one I suppose you’d be best of going for 1976’s Greatest Hits. It includes Taylor’s best known early songs–the truly indispensable “Fire and Rain,” the escapist tracks “Carolina in My Mind,” “Country Road,” and “Mexico,” and where else are you going to find them in one place? Unfortunately, it also includes such negligible rubbish as “Shower the People” and the criminally insipid “You’ve Got a Friend.” Talk about your devil’s bargains.

For a greatest hits, there really isn’t all that much great about it; the A Side holds up, but the B side is a slow dull slide towards the lamentable live version of “Steamroller,” on which Taylor demonstrates his profound lack of blues chops. Please stop playing that funky music, white boy; you’re giving Abba ideas.

The A Side opens with re-recorded versions of “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind,” both of which appeared in different form on Taylor’s largely ignored 1968 debut LP. The former is delicate and pretty, a fancy piece of musical embroidery work I prefer to admire from afar, the latter a melodic and pedal-steel guitar tinged country rock revery about traveling while standing still… the perfect song for travelphobes and agoraphobes and people who are simply too zonked to get out of the old bean bag chair.

“Fire and Rain” is a moving meditation on loss and the best song Taylor will ever write–on it Taylor confronts the clinical depression that led to a lengthy hospitalization as a teen–and later to his becoming a junkie–as well as the suicide of a close friend, and both the pain and the song sound felt.

“Sweet Baby James” is the wimpiest cowboy song ever written–our boy James makes those fakers the Eagles sound like bona fide desperadoes; dollars to donuts the “doggies” he’s singing about are chihuahuas. But go easy on the boy; it’s mighty good as far as lullabies go. As for “Country Road,” Taylor sings about sailing home to Jesus and says he might just be a natural born fool, but I’ll be damned if doesn’t almost sound passionate, and in my humble opinion this one edges out John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by a nose.

Taylor closes out the A with the insufferable Carole King cover “You’ve Got a Friend.” As for the B Side, it tells me one thing–Taylor’s lock on greatness is based largely on the small number of winners on the A Side. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is seventies singer-songwriter claptrap adorned by a simply awful saxophone solo; “Walking Man” is shlock right down to the frost on the pumpkin. Who is this mysterious walking man, moving in quiet desperation and keeping his eye on the holy land? Could he be the Walkin’ Dude from Stephen King’s The Stand? Or is he just some bozo who lost his license for driving under the influence?

The Marvin Gaye cover “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” is a catchy slander but there to be enjoyed by all who prefer white bread to the real thing; the South of the Border-flavored “Mexico” (the strongest cut on the B) is the sound of Jimmy Buffett, depressed. And no, I can’t visualize James in a honky tonk in Mexico either; I can’t see him in a honky tonk anywhere. He’s far too reserved and polite, and the whores would scare him. On the repellently pleasant “Shower the People” Taylor strings together cliches (you can run but you cannot hide, if it feels nice don’t think twice, etc.) and says love is all you need–a soggy sentiment by 1970, much less 1976, which is when this baby first saw the light of day.

James Taylor is a musician without edges, and his fans–or so I’m forced to assume–love him for it. An artist working in the medium of mellow, his music is there to comfort the afflicted and afflict the unconverted–like Robert Christgau, who once wrote about the “conniving, self-pitying voice that is [James’] curse” and asked, “…which god is supposed to have sent him? Not the one in Rock and Roll Heaven, that’s for sure.” Still, Taylor’s had his moments. Just not enough of them to fill two sides of a greatest hits album.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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