Sickly Sweet Baby James

The line that separates evocative rock and roll romanticism from facile pop blatherings is too thin for just anyone to navigate, and it's one that James Taylor has never treaded with much grace. The possessor of an occasionally affecting voice, and a confessional lyricist who helped popularize the pathos, angst, and self-pity of the singer/songwritier brigade back in the Seventies, Taylor has turned his role as Everyman Simp and caring, romantic soul into a highly profitable career.

Like Jimmy Buffett, Taylor is one of the kings of the summer tour, and his live gate has always been stronger than his chart presence. The recently released Hourglass, a guest star-laden hodgepodge of backward glances and love-song goo you should expect from someone nicknamed "Sweet Baby James," has yielded no major hits. In fact, Taylor hasn't had a hit in years, despite all the sellout crowds. All of which proves, if nothing else, that building a career out of melancholic puffballs and hummable ditties of good will and charity is entirely feasible, if you don't mind becoming the mouthpiece for sensitive fortysomethings the world over.

Of course, there's nothing really wrong with that. Taylor has obviously connected with his audience, and most people need someone who can express their thoughts and feelings for them.

The problem with Taylor is the sweeping banality that is the hallmark of his canon. From his unassuming pipes to his mushheaded writing, Taylor has always been a lightweight, even among his self-absorbed peers of the Seventies. Despite his penchant for moping, Jackson Browne, for instance, was always a better lyricist than Taylor, and if Browne never had what you could call a rocker's heart, he at least had the good sense to employ the dazzling guitar virtuoso David Lindley (who did have a rocker's heart, and the fingers to match). The Eagles -- the smarmiest, most self-important group to emerge from the Me Decade -- at least proved capable of synthesizing their country-rock origins with the slick L.A. pop perfected on Hotel California. Fleetwood Mac, meanwhile, made records that shone -- even with Stevie Nicks wheezing at the mike -- thanks mostly to Lindsey Buckingham's production wizardry and the fat rhythm bed concocted by John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. As for Joni Mitchell, the quintessential singer/songwriter who collaborated with Taylor in the late Sixties, she easily outclassed him, if only because of the unnerving intimacy and artful declarations found in her aural diary excerpts.

Taylor himself has never lacked for depression or torment. The son of a wealthy Boston college dean, and just one of four Taylor kids to take up songwriting (there were brothers Livingston and Alex and sister Kate as well), young James had a nervous breakdown at age seventeen and checked himself into a mental institution, where he first started writing songs. (Both Kate and Livingston logged time at the same institution.) Taylor bounced around in a few groups after his release in 1965 and picked up a heroin habit that would hound him for the next few years.

During a late-Sixties stint in London, Taylor passed along a demo tape to producer Peter Asher, who was then an A&R man for the Beatles' Apple imprint; an eponymous debut album was issued by the label in 1970 to little notice. As Taylor's drug use escalated, he wound up back in an institution for a self-imposed dryout. Drawing on his time in the snake pit, Taylor conceived what remains his shining moment as a songwriter, "Fire and Rain," a huge hit in 1970. It was the song that introduced the pop masses to Taylor and his second album Sweet Baby James, which for better or worse epitomizes both the nascent days of soft rock and indicated the direction Taylor's career would take.

It was all there: the lite-pop croon of his slightly reedy voice, the understated flourishes of myriad session pros, and Taylor's documentation of his trials, troubles, and incessant need for romance. Only on "Steamroller Blues" did Taylor explore the, um, carnal side of luv, and even then he approached the subject more as a smirking punsmith than a normal horny guy, stringing together classic-blues cliches only a true genius could redeem. (That genius, as it turned out, was Elvis Presley, who took the song for a tumble on the sweat-soaked sheets of raw sexuality in 1973 during his Aloha from Hawaii concert.)

Taylor would eventually find romance in 1972 when he married sex-bomb chanteuse Carly Simon. But while the hits kept rolling throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties, Taylor's biggest successes after "Fire and Rain" were covers. His sole number one pop hit was Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," in 1971, followed three years later by a duet with Simon on the old Inez and Charlie Fox R&B nugget "Mockingbird." A flaccid take on Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is" came next. The plundering continued with a feeble stab at Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," cut with Simon and Garfunkel, then another duet with Carly (a desecration of the Everly Brothers' hit "Devoted to You"), and turgid, lifeless shots at classics by the Drifters ("Up on the Roof") and Buddy Holly ("Everyday," a flop from 1985's That's Why I'm Here).

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