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).

Left to his own songwriting devices, Taylor has always painted himself as the ultimate sensitive guy -- one who listens, who cares, who's been beaten up by love and romance enough to really, you know, understand the pain of it all. And to his credit, he's tackled the subject with more compassion than your average male singer/songwriters, who tend to fell back on misogyny, cynicism, and macho allusions to Wild West loners (the Eagles' abysmal "Desperado"). Still, "Shower the People" and "Your Smiling Face" aren't exactly packed with revelation, despite the good will in both.

No one's saying Taylor is an asshole or a jerk. He's always pulled for the political left; he campaigned hard for Jimmy Carter, took part in the MUSE concerts back in 1980, and even weighed in on the Gulf War fiasco on a couple of songs from 1991's New Moon Shine. Only when he tackles affairs of the heart does Taylor's brain turn to pudding.

But that's the very aspect that makes his art so insidious: its sullying of romance in pop music. And by "romance" I mean true romance -- the shameless, dizzy feeling that makes you listen to cornball moments of confession like the Danleers' 1958 young-love classic "One Summer Night" four, five, ten times in a row and at least wish you could feel what Jimmy Weston felt when he sang those sweet, sticky lines.

Although lots of people like to yammer on about the rebellion inherent in rock, love-sick suckers have always populated rock and soul as well, from the kissy-face doo-wop of the Fifties to the emotional exorcisms of the Sixties soul clan, from the songwriters who sprouted like crabgrass on the soil tilled by Bob Dylan to punk-based romantics such as Paul Westerberg, Matthew Sweet, and Sebadoh's Lou Barlow. And oddly enough, there's been a resurgence of interest in Seventies pop whiners such as Bread and the Carpenters.

While I loathe such exhumations, I'm a love-sick sucker myself. Hell, I'm a sensitive guy. At least I wanna be. I love romance, and I'm a complete fool for the heady rush of it when it first comes knocking. I know heartache as well as the next guy, and I'm intimately aware of the confusion, torment, and guilt that usually surface when love turns sour. To me, there's nothing greater than stumbling upon a record or an album that articulates those joys and aches in a way that feels real.

Maybe Taylor's articulations reflect reality in your part of the world, but they don't do much for mine. Throughout Hourglass, his first collection of new material since New Moon Shine, he turns in one gooey valentine after another. During "Little More Time with You," accompanied by the strains of Stevie Wonder's harmonica, Taylor professes to have given up his taste for drugs, alcohol, even tobacco, but he can't shake the grip of love ("Rascal won't let go," he moans at one point).

In yet another rancid cover -- Taylor has ruined more great songs than anyone this side of the Grateful Dead -- he tarnishes the standard "Walking My Baby Back Home." (Consumer tip: Nat King Cole did the definitive version back in 1952.) And just when you think it can't get any worse, Taylor and little buddy Sting chime together on "Jump Up Behind Me," a lilting trifle that is both the centerpiece of Hourglass and emblematic of the simpiness at Taylor's core. "I know now only one thing matters in these days," Taylor warbles. "One thing: true love, love and love alone." Heavy. About as heavy as the declaration made a decade ago by pop-metal poet Jon Bon Jovi, who inadvertently summarized James Taylor's oeuvre when he penned "You Give Love a Bad Name."

James Taylor plays Saturday, September 6, at 8:00 p.m. at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach, 561-795-8883. Tickets are $15.75.


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