James Taylor arrives as an American legend in three separate if linked forms. He is a songwriter, a guitar player, and a singer. In all three roles he has made distinct and soulful and original sounds. As a songwriter, he brought both a new emotional directness and a new harmonic sophistication to the American song. Generations of young guitar players have learned their jazzy major sevenths and poignant minor ninths by working their way through James Taylor songbooks—and generations of young songwriters have found their new ways to make sadness sing. The singer-songwriter before James Taylor was a strummer and a belter and a messenger; after, he was a picker and a poet and an introspective crooner.
To adolescent longing and exuberance James Taylor brought a bittersweet melancholy that recalled American masters like Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen, but recast their sadness in the forms and sounds of sixties rock, bringing a melodic charm of a newly modern kind to everything he wrote. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Carolina In My Mind”, “You Can Close Your Eyes”, “Never Die Young”, “Shower The People”, “Secret O’Life”—so many beautiful songs to add to what we should now call “The Second American Songbook”—that great gathering of words and music, from the minds of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and Randy Newman and so many more, that is now part of our common inheritance as much as the first great Broadway-based songbook has been.
As a guitar player James Taylor invented one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable styles in American acoustic guitar. “Strum adverse” as he has wryly described himself, his pianistic style, filled with plangent hammer-ons, complicated bass figures, and poignant slides, suggested a rich, orchestral approach to the guitar. When Guthrie Govan does his virtuosic pastiche of the fifty greatest guitars, JT is right there, alongside the electric speed merchants.
And then perhaps no singer since Nat Cole has managed to combine warmth and wisdom, gentleness, and musical authority, as JT does. Not only his own songs, but those of Richard Rodgers, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Webb, and Frank Loesser emerge as somehow slyer and sweeter than they had ever been before. (Listen to his wide-eyed bossa nova take on Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Natalie Cole, or to his prairie-longing “Wichita Lineman”.)
Like any true artist, his work is structured by its contradictions: in James’ case by his enormous openness and sweetness of voice and tone set against the awareness within them of pain and difficulty overcome. It makes the sweetness and slyness all the more meaningful. He is not an artist who has courted controversy, or made a blazon out of difficulty, or indulged, too often, the imp of the perverse. Yet his demons are present in his music as they have surely been from time to time in the mind; this makes his art an analgesic to modern anxiety without being a false balm to our troubles. He sings our worries— about marriage, the meaning of love in its first youthful and then second mature instances, about hard times and Daddy’s baby and that vast Nantucket sound and country roads and family secrets, not to mention the secret o’ life. But he makes them sound like confidences offered, not confessions imposed.
There is a form of false reassurance that is properly called sentimental, but then there is a form of true reassurance that comes from someone who has known pain but chosen joy. For decades JT has been a companion in our struggles—not the self-obsessed acquaintance who cares only for himself but an affable and empathetic friend who is sharing his troubles only in response to your own, who is telling rueful tales of his low moments and bad turns and dumb moves and heart-breaks to make you feel better about having some, too.
That’s the companionate sound James Taylor has given America. For many of us, James’ music has been a tranquil brook in a sea of turbulence, reminding us there are artists who soothe without sweetening, because they are in touch with the real. Their intelligence makes sentimentality impossible. That edge of objectivity is always present in his musical patterns. He said once that, “Music is empirically true; that’s why it gives us the release that it does. It’s of the real world; it’s a human language but it follows the laws of physics.” This empirical turn gives American sentiment its exactitude. The great American philosopher, C.S. Pierce, once said that what is wrongly called sentimentality is often simply, “the doctrine that great respect should be paid to the natural judgments of the sensible heart.” The sound of old summer places and failed family reunions fills James’ music but also the hope of renewal through delighted routine, “Some are like summer coming back every year, got your baby and your blanket / and your bottle of beer / I break into a grin from ear to ear / and suddenly it’s perfectly clear: that’s why I’m here” he sings ruefully of his own long life on the road. He has filled our lives with the sound of a sensible heart making natural judgments, and so given us music that is sentimental in the highest American sense—moving, beautiful, and exactly, empirically true.
Adam Gopnik has been enwrapped in James Taylor’s music for almost fifty years, and enfolded in his friendship for almost five. His essay appeared in the concert program book at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors in Washington DC, December 4, 2016.
Photo: Michael Lutch