Greatest Hits

James Taylor

Warner Brothers, 1976

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


[Adapted from a review originally appearing in On The Town magazine on April 16, 1996]

One of the unique joys of popular music as an art form is the way certain songs etch themselves into your life's memories. A decade (or several) down the road, three familiar chords can snap you back to the moment you first stepped into your college dorm room, or bared your soul to a new-found friend, or kissed that intriguing someone who was destined to become a fixture in your life. Songs become temporal bookmarks that way—put your finger on the marker, flip the book open, and boom, you're back where you left off all those years before. One album that performs this minor miracle for me, again and again, is James Taylor's Greatest Hits.

The first time I was really exposed to JT, in my first month of college, his brand of gentle, introspective folk-pop did nothing for me. I had headed off to UC Davis in full head-banger AC/DC rebellion mode, certain if the music didn't make your eyeballs bulge on the downbeats, there wasn't any point. It was around the fourth late night I was forced to spend hanging out in the student lounge, thanks to my freshman year dormitory roommate's resounding success with the ladies, that his secret finally dawned on me—it was that damned acoustic folkie sensitive-romantic crap he put on every time he “entertained” in our room. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” indeed.

As I learned over time, though, there’s a lot more to “Sweet Baby James” than romantic noodlings and pleasant acoustic guitar melodies. The man frequently writes from the depths of his soul, from deep blue and white hot interior landscapes few artists are brave enough tomy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250
explore with his degree of honesty and sincerity. When he sings “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, but I always thought that I’d see you again,” it doesn't matter whether you know he wrote the song after the suicide of a young woman he had gotten to know during his own stay in a psychiatric ward—just the emotion in his voice tells you he is doing a lot more by singing it than simply entertaining. This performance is an exorcism of grief; the song, his tool.

JT unflinchingly shows you both sides of the coin of life, always carrying on, rhyming the bad with the good, the sad with the sweet, the absurd with the devastating. The wonder is that as he lopes through middle age, once-shaggy hair now mostly a memory, new albums an increasing rarity, his audience stands intact, waiting impatiently for the annual summer tour. After all, what could be more comforting and uplifting to a person feeling beaten down by the brutally alienating modern world than to know that they aren't alone, that someone has visited the same dark corners of the soul that they have, and come back singing about it?

Taylor's greatest hits album covers every major single from his extremely fertile early period (1968-1976), including songs that capture in three minutes' time the essence of solitude (“Country Road”), solace (“Something in the Way She Moves”) and the redeeming power of love (“Shower the People”). The melancholy “Carolina in My Mind,” written during a homesick stretch spent in London, is sprinkled with references to friends who “hit me from behind” and other tangled relationships, culminating in the narrator's flight back inside his own imagination. Both a gifted songwriter and an expert interpreter of others’ compositions, Taylor delivered an early soft-rock anthem in his comrade Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.”

The sometimes solitary Taylor (“Walking Man”) has always had a playful side, too, though, as heard in the rollicking singalong “Mexico,” the exuberant Motown cover “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” and especially the rascally blues stomper “Steamroller.” A musical Renaissance man of sorts, Taylor has always been defined most by his humanity and accessibility as an artist; whether or not you really do, his songs make you feel like you know him.

And that’s the key to this album’s time-traveling powers, at least for me: it pulls you in, it engages you in a conversation. It takes you back to times and places when you felt or did momentous things—like sitting in your freshman year dorm’s student lounge late in the evening, passing the time getting to know the woman who would turn out to be the love of your life.

Rating: A

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