Despite its austere white artwork, James Taylor’s “Greatest Hits” may be one of the greatest greatest hits ever — or at least one of the most durable. Released in 1976, after seven hits album, the collection distilled Taylor’s literate songwriting and wistful melodicism for subsequent generations. It has been a back-catalog best-seller for decades, certified Diamond (10,000,000 in sales), and, more important, a means for younger and younger listeners to dip a toe into Taylor’s expansive, era-defining oeuvre.
Taylor was still a teenager in 1968 when he signed with Apple Records, the label owned by the Beatles, and couldn’t legally drink when he released his self-titled debut. During the 1970s, he embodied the archetype of the American singer-songwriter: bookish yet outdoorsy, not quite a hippie but definitely not a rocker, more apt to express his deepest emotions in song rather than in conversation. On such albums as 1970’s “Sweet Baby James,” 1971’s “Mudslide Slim & the Blue Horizon,” and 1977’s “JT,” he exhibited a soft-spoken intelligence, a precise guitar-playing style, a deep musical curiosity, and most of all a laid-back demeanor that would set the template for sensitive dudes for years to come.
Perhaps for that reason, it’s been too easy to write him off as Granddad Rock: too mellow, too sensitive, too old. Which is not an entirely accurate impression. In fact, Taylor is perhaps one of the few music superstars whose catalog still has dark corners to explore. “Greatest Hits” may have included some of his best songs, but it may have misrepresented him to subsequent generations by omitting some of his more extreme material, such as the genially goofy “Gorilla” and the devastating “A Junkie’s Lament.” His music is darker and funnier, more varied and self-deprecating than you might think.
“Before This World” is Taylor’s 17th album in 47 years, but only his first collection of original material in 13. However, in the time since 2002’s “October Road” he has recorded two Christmas albums, two covers comps, a live album and a collaboration with Carole King—all while touring heavily. “Before This World” is a finely crafted record, melancholy at times (“Montana”), bawdy at others (“Stretch of the Highway”), and generally celebratory.
It is a record by a man who sounds like he can’t quite believe his long stretch of good fortune. Fans keep turning up for shows; the songs keep coming, perhaps a little more slowly than they once arrived; and his longtime band can still translate them into spry, sophisticated arrangements. The musicians are crucial, says Taylor. “The band is a big part of what’s going on here,” he says. “It’s not just five backing musicians. It’s a musical community.”
Obviously you’ve developed a comfortable rapport with your band. Does that come into play when you’re writing new songs?
I started out writing just for guitar and voice, because that’s all I had. As time passes, when I write, I do think of them, of this community playing these songs. I record with the same people I tour with, so a lot of this album was recorded on the road. I had booked a tour to support the album, but I just drove the album into the tour, so we had to finish it on the road. We set up studios in adjoining hotel rooms or found studios along the way. I’d say we did six or seven different sessions in that way. Maybe that’s why I get a lot of highway songs. There was one on the last album and the album before.
It does seem like there are a lot of songs on here about travel, specifically missing certain places like Montana or Chicago.
I find that as I write, it’s a sort of process that’s out of my control. It's often as though rather than writing the songs, I’m just the first person to hear them. One of the things I keep coming back to is the pull between home life and life on the road. That’s what “Stretch of Highway” is about. But I’ve had many songs like that. “My Traveling Star” [from the 2002 album “October Road”] is a recent one. And there’s “Daddy’s All Gone” [from the 1976 album “In the Pocket”]. I became who I am as a musician and as a person in the mid ‘60s. I’ve evolved since then, for sure, but when I was starting out, I thought that anyone who was 65 was a completely different creature that you couldn’t really speak to. The surprise now that I’m in my late 60s is that I really am the same person. You remain the same person. What we’re so attached to is our individuated consciousness that we live in. We don’t want to let it go.
Does that change the way you relate to older songs? When you revisit a song you wrote 40 years ago, does it mean something different to you now than it did at the time?
I’ve played some of these songs so many time, but it still feels like yesterday. If I’m playing them in front of an audience, their reaction and connection to the song is a really big part of it. But I do see different things about them, and I do amend them somewhat. “Carolina in My Mind” has a whole new end part that is now a crucial part of the song. I see people in the audience singing along to it. They know it now. I wish that I could tour an album for 20 or 30 gigs and play these songs in front of an audience 20 or 30 times before going into the studio and putting them down. It’s odd that the first time that they’re played is the time that they’re recorded for posterity. But you get better and better at that. This is the 16th time I’ve gone in with a batch of songs, and I think I’ve gotten better at realizing the things the first time, in their first iterations.
This is your first album of original material in more than a decade. Have you been continually writing during that time, or are these more recent songs?
Both things. Songs start constantly. Every time I sit down and play, there’s a possibility that a chord change or a chord progression will become a song. I put a lot of stuff down on Dictaphone, pocket recorders, on my cell phone. There’s a lot of that instantaneous catch-it-while-it’s-here stuff. Sometimes you get an entire song from one of those sessions. It’s rare but it happens. More often there has be a long phase of sequestering off. You get in a cage somewhere without any distractions. One of the things I found this time is that I actually need a week of defended empty time before lyrics really start to come through. It used to be that I could find a place near my home, set up all my notebooks and recorders and my guitar, and work away from three hours before lunch and two hours after lunch, maybe take a long walk. Now I find I actually have to drive a couple of hours away from home and set up camp for a whole week, and after a couple of days, things start to flow. That’s new since the last time. Now I know what it takes. It takes these little sabbaticals. It’s rare that I know what a song will be before I write it. It’s rare that I set out to write a song. There are a couple of exceptions. I knew what “Far Afghanistan” and “Angels of Fenway” were doing to be about before I sat down to write the lyrics. But usually I’m just following the song and I’m surprised by where it leads me.
I wanted to ask about those two songs in particular—especially “Far Afghanistan.” It stands out on the album due to its subject matter, among other things.
That one is in a minor key, and I don’t often write in a minor key. It also has a kind of Celtic feel to the music. Every song gets a title as I’m working on it. “Angels of Fenway” was called “G Nation,” because it’s in the key of G and is about Red Sox Nation. “Far Afghanistan” was called “Irish Heroic,” because that’s how the music felt to me. I don’t know if you know the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, but I feel his influence in the song musically. I’ve written other songs about soldiers, including one early song called “Soldiers” [from 1971’s “Mud Slide Jim and the Blue Horizon”] and another called “Native Son” [from 1991’s “New Moon Shine”], which was about soldiers trying to come home and trying to re-engage with normal civilian life. I’ve been obsessed with what it takes to prepare yourself for something so extreme—for such an extreme sacrifice. It occupies me a lot. “Far Afghanistan” is definitely a fiction, although I’ve known lots of friends who’ve done serve and I’ve lost some, too. But the idea of putting yourself in harm’s way is what the song is about. What would it take for a young soldier to prepare himself or herself to kill or be killed?
I do come back to some of the same themes. I suppose you could say that all songwriters are just writing the same 100 songs over and over again. I’m not saying anything new. No words are coming out of my mouth now that haven’t come out of my mouth many times before. So it’s all repetition and reexamination and regurgitation, I guess. There are songs that are palliative—that seek to comfort—and there are songs about recovery. There are love songs and road songs, and there are songs about show business—like “Company Man” [from 1979’s “Flag”] or “Hey Mister That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” [from “Mudslide Jim”]. And there are songs that are just outright celebrations, like “Jolly Springtime” on the new record or “First of May” [from 1988’s “Never Die Young”]. There are songs that are like hymns for agnostics. I have songs about my dad. And I even write songs about music. The new song “Snow Time” is about the restorative power of music. That theme... all of these themes have been in there a number of times.
Does that become problematic after a while? Do you ever stop writing because you’ve heard it before or written it before?
That’s the thing. I don’t seem to be able to finish a song if I’m not compelled by it. So yeah, sometimes I’m writing and I feel myself on the same subject again, but sometimes I’m still excited by it. I’ve written three or four love songs to my wife Kim, and they always new to me. You’re coming at it from a different angle. You’re casting it in a different scene and different musical context.
Tell me about “Angels of Fenway.” I have to say, I did appreciate the line about the Yankees overspending.
It’s what everybody says when they’re going on their tirade: The Yankees are fantastic. In fact, they’re the best two teams in baseball. After I wrote the song, I sent it to a friend of mine at the Red Sox, who himself is a songwriter, and we launched it from Fenway Park. They did a little video for it, and we debuted it during a series with the Yankees in which they shut us out, of course. But it was great. I’m going to play Fenway this summer, and I can’t wait to play the song for them.
That thing that happened in 2004 was an amazing moment whether or not you’re a sports fan or a baseball fan or even a Red Sox fan. It was miraculous that we would be down three games to the Yankees and win the next four—the next eight, in fact, because we went to St. Louis and could not be denied. I remember seeing pictures in the newspapers of tombstones and graveyards all over New England where there were little messages to the departed: Congratulations, Granddad, we finally did it! Baseball gloves and newspaper clippings and banners and pennants were all over the place. It was a real release, so I knew I wanted to try to write about it.
That song is more about the characters, though—the grandmother and the grandson. Just the line, “even after Granddad died,” suggests a whole thing that’s happening in her life. It defines her character—that she went to the games even after he died. It suggests they went together and even though it was his thing, she kept going after he died. She continues that tradition and takes her grandson along with her, which turns him into a fan. So the song traces her life span: She’s born in 1918 [when the Red Sox last won the World Series], and she watches from her hospital bed as they finally are victorious. I’m actually really happy with how it came out. Musically it’s like that song from “Oklahoma!”—“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” It’s not a modern-sounding song. It’s got some giddy-up.
It’s funny you should mention “Oklahoma!” because I thought the bridge—where the boy sings the vocals—sounded like a bit of musical theater in the middle of the song.
That’s right. You get the crowd coming in and the ambient noise of Fenway. That was my producer’s idea. Dave O’Donnell came up with that little tableau. My wife sang in the chorale part on the chorus. She has a beautiful high soprano voice and she doubled the melody on top. I have two sons, twins 14 years old, and they were always hanging around the barn when we’re recording. So I just drafted Henry, whose voice hadn’t changed at that point last year. He could still sing that high part. Rufus had already gone down an octave. So I said, Sing this part for me, Henry. I thought he did a great job. There’s such a strong family connection at Fenway Park, especially between grandparents and grandchildren. That’s a lot of who’s coming to games.
The game has such a leisurely and unhurried pace. I think it’s more fun than watching basketball or football, which people say is more exciting. I guess it’s just nice to have a minute to follow what’s going on and take it all in.
I totally agree. I don’t look for a lot of excitement in life. Maybe I shouldn’t broadcast that. But excitement isn’t what’s missing. Modern life is distracting. I remember being a kid and there were long open weekends when you had time on your hands, time to have long thoughts. Now it’s really cut up into smaller and smaller fragments of attention. At the same time, that kind of technological accessibility allows me to record an album in my barn or in a hotel room if I want to. There are definitely some things that I wouldn’t want to go back to. It’s one of the meanings of the title “Before This World.” I feel like I am before this world. I come from 1965. When I became who I am it was another world. A previous world. I was in London in 1968 in the studio with the Beatles, but that was another time. It was exciting in ways and it was insane. But I feel like I’m a messenger from a prior world.