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An Introduction to James Taylor

James Taylor is basically the poster boy for sensitive, acoustic songwriting in the 1970s, starring on a Time Magazine cover story about the singer-songwriter movement. He can be a divisive figure – there are plenty of detractors out there who find him toothless – but I think there’s plenty of craft and elegance in his writing. I do find him a talented guy who’s only really good at one thing – elegant, emotional, acoustic songs – and I lose interest when he goes too far away from his signature style. I’ve covered a handful of his early albums recently; here are five of his notable songs.

James Taylor started his recording career on The Beatles’ Apple label. His debut was unsuccessful – he was unable to promote it as he was spending time in rehab.

Taylor’s time in rehab inspired one of his best known songs, ‘Fire and Rain’. The song and its parent album, Sweet Baby James, launched Taylor’s career. The song also features Taylor’s long time friend Carole King on piano.

If there’s an overlooked song in Taylor’s catalogue, it’s perhaps the title track to 1971’s Mud Slide Slim. It’s charming and gently funky, yet it never seems to feature on Taylor’s various compilation albums.

In 1976, Taylor’s Greatest Hits featured two songs from Taylor’s debut with lush new arrangements. ‘Carolina In My Mind’ stands out as one of his best songs in its revised version.

James Taylor has remained a popular performer. ‘Copperline’ from 1991’s New Moon Shine is a good summation of Taylor’s strengths, with his elegant, nostalgic lyric and his acoustic finger-picking.

Do you think James Taylor is a talent, or lame? Did you know that Taylor Swift is named after him?

13 thoughts on “An Introduction to James Taylor Leave a comment

  1. I think James is great and in fact is on my latest post of best singers. The only caveat is that for me he will always be a record guy. That would be too mellow of a concert for me. But yeah, I dig his stuff for sure. He’s got a really good Christmas album if you’re into that sort of stuff.

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  2. Lame? Certainly not. His early vulnerability was probably due largely to his addiction problems on top of a natural sensitivity and being thrust into the spotlight and required to produce, produce, produce when he could have done with a less pressured environment – see Hey Mister That’s Me Up On The Jukebox.
    His guitar style is highly distinctive – he tends to reuse the same licks a lot – and he paints a picture with words that is surprisingly detailed considering the restrictions of the song format. Walking Man is like the first chapter of a novel, all within three or four minutes.

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    • He is a very good lyricist. He has a kind of elegance to his best words that many pop artists don’t get to. I know he had a poet helping him with ‘Copperline’, but it’s very, very good – manages to have a whole song of triple rhymes without being forced.

      Branch water and tomato wine
      Creosote and turpentine
      Sour mash and new moon shine
      Down on Copperline

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  3. I really like the first three albums (The second and third being albums I regularly pull from the shelf), but I’d be happy with a compilation of stuff after that. I just haven’t bothered beyond a cursory listen of his more recent stuff.

    He has a lot of great songs, all well crafted, but I think his biggest issue is that he perhaps doesn’t release anything that would be considered vital or relevant. It all feels very autumnal. Comforting, but hardly demanding attention. But that’s just my thoughts.

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    • Autumnal. Yeah, I like James but that’s a good description. That’s why I like to listen to him but will pass on seeing him. If I’m going to a show I’d rather have beer spilled on me at any random AC/DC show than hang out all night with the wine and cheese set.

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    • Do you count the Apple debut as one of the first three? I haven’t heard that in its entirety.

      I think autumnal is a good description for what he does. For me, the issue isn’t so much that it’s autumnal, as that he only excels at one thing – acoustic, nostalgic, introspective songs. Really good at that one thing, but makes him a bit limited.

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      • I do, yeah. It’s pretty worthwhile picking up if you see it.

        But yeah, his stuff does tend to sound a bit same-y. He can Be guilty of being a bit pedestrian sounding.

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