June 16, 2015 | « back

USATODAY.COM – Album of the Week: James Taylor’s ‘World’

By Elysa Gardiner

Purity of expression — it’s a rare and precious commodity in pop music, particularly in singing. After more than a decade of juiced-up vocal showdowns on TV, and more years of Top 40 crooners wallowing in melisma and melodrama, it is nothing short of a relief to hear a simple, moving lyric relayed simply and movingly.

So when James Taylor sings, on the title track of Before This World (*** and a half out of four) — his first album of new songs in 13 years, out Tuesday — that “the world is old and it will never last,” we receive his warmth and wisdom as naturally as we would a hug from an old friend.

We feel the sting as well. Taylor’s music is not, and never has been, merely a balm. His songs may get slotted into easy-listening formats, but many have looked piercingly into the depths of isolation and longing. His singing, too, has an easy soulfulness that makes each shade of emotion authentic (and accounts for his affinity for the R&B classics he’s revisited on hit recordings).

On World, Taylor’s voice sounds glowingly well-preserved, and he wields it with typical grace, whether savoring a lovers’ bond inYou And I Again or putting an unexpectedly poignant spin on a historic Boston Red Sox victory in Angels Of Fenway. The latter peppers a blithe, catchy melody with witty pauses featuring wonder-struck backing vocals.

Breezy vocal harmonies figure into other tracks — the wistful Montana, the horns-laced highlight Stretch of the Highway — all produced with exquisite taste by Dave O’Donnell. Far Afghanistan is, as its title suggests, starker, with Taylor turning his focus, as he has before, to external struggles.

Channeling a soldier, he sings of being “ready to be terrified and ready to be mad…But nothing could prepare me for the beauty of the place.”

The search for beauty, and the appreciation of it, are ongoing in World. Like all artists who survive and thrive as long as Taylor has, he understands the limits of melancholia, and even of introspection. In the sparkling Wild Mountain Thyme, he looks around and sees the “the summertime is coming/And the trees are sweetly blooming.”

In a lesser artist’s hands, that sentiment might qualify as corn. As Taylor sings it, it’s a testament to surviving — and a note of thanks for having been able to do so.

Download: Stretch of the Highway, Wild Mountain Thyme, Before This World/Jolly Springtime