To create art, according to the popular belief, artists must suffer. We non-artists can, of course, sympathize with the pain they endure as part of the "creative process," but we're not exactly eager for them to be released from this pain.
Look what happened to Cat Stevens: during his tortuous pursuit of spiritual fulfillment, he sang some of the most evocative songs ever put to vinyl--but, the minute he found peace in the religion of Islam, he put down his guitar forever. Yusuf Islam (Cat's new name) may be happy now, but what about us?
The most striking thing about James Taylor's new album, That's Why I'm Here, is what isn't there: madness, suicide, drug addiction, disaffection, loneliness, alcoholism, adultery, break-up--in short, the pain that has inspired some of his best songs. The album's front cover features Taylor in a clean white shirt with a big happy smirk on his face, while the back cover shows a grassy field filled with red flowers. The whole affair reeks with healthiness.
Fortunately for his fans, James Taylor has defied the maxim that suffering is necessary for creativity. J.T. is a happy man: he is soon to marry Kathryn Walker, a beautiful actress. He is healthy: his long ordeal with drug dependency seems over at last. And he still has the musical knack.
That's Why I'm Here is no earth shaker, but it's pure James. The album commences with the title song, in which, after a brief guitar solo, Taylor sings: "Person to person and man to man, I'm back in touch with a long, lost friend." Having deprived his fans of new material for nearly five years, he couldn't have summed up their feelings more accurately.
Taylor continues to describe his reaction to the death of his friend, John Belushi, and how Belushi's drug overdose brought home the dangers that fast living imposed upon his own life:
"John's gone, found dead, he dies high, he's brown bread,
After the laughter the waves of dread
It hits us like a ton of lead."
James speaks like a healed person. He has become the "Walking Man" he once described, and urges us to do the same.
The album's most beautiful song is undoubtably "Song For You Far Away." With its eloquent lyrics and compelling guitar and keyboard accompaniment, this song spotlight's Taylor's warm and familiar style.
"Mona," another superior song, is a hilarious self-parody of Taylor's melancholy classics. Like "Fire and Rain," "Mona" is an ode to a deceased friend; yet, as the song proceeds, the listener realizes that Mona is not a girlfriend who has committed suicide, but a pet pig whom the singer has disposed of personally.
Stylistically, "Mona" recaptures the simple sadness of the "Sweet Baby James" album. Indeed, the listener has to strain to hear the steel pedal and the satirical lilt and choke in James's voice. All in all, it's one of the funniest songs Taylor has ever written.
That's Why I'm Here marks James' debut as a full-fledged album producer. He does a fine job for the most part, and achieves a rich sound with few instruments. Exotic noises help make "Only a Dream in Rio"--a song about the return of Brazilian democracy--an exciting and colorful celebration. The jazzy trumpets, funky harmonica and upbeat tempo of "Limousine Driver" rival Kenny Loggins' "Footloose" sound.
Yet there are a few problems. First, Taylor's adaptations of other people's songs are generally off. James owes a large portion of his fame to his brilliant interpretations--most notably Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" and "Up on the Roof," and Holland-Dozier-Holland's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." While Taylor gives an interesting performance of Buddy Holly's "Every Day" on this album, his version of Burt Bacharach's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is completely unexceptional.
Secondly, Taylor fails to use his two greatest assets--his voice and guitar-playing--to their best advantage. For some unexplained reason, he persists in having background singers echo his lines in falsetto. The album is also devoid of overdubs of his own voice, a technique employed so masterfully in earlier songs such as "Shower the People."
Like Taylor's last few albums, That's Why I'm Here tantalizes the listener with the artist's guitar playing. However, James' nimble fingers pick just enough to remind us of his immense skill, but not enough to satisfy.
Despite these drawbacks, the album is certainly worthy of its creator. Now that he's through with suffering, we should be thankful he's still producing at all. That's Why I'm Here may not attract new fans to Taylor's work, but loyal and longtime fans will rejoice in the opportunity to take one more refreshing stroll with the Walking Man.