Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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James Taylor

  • Sweet Baby James [Warner Bros., 1970] B-
  • Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon [Warner Bros., 1971] C+
  • One Man Dog [Warner Bros., 1972] C+
  • Gorilla [Warner Bros., 1975] C+
  • Greatest Hits [Warner Bros., 1976] C
  • JT [Columbia, 1977] B
  • Flag [Columbia, 1979] C+
  • New Moon Shine [Columbia, 1991] Dud
  • Hourglass [Columbia, 1997] Choice Cuts

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Sweet Baby James [Warner Bros., 1970]
I have solved the Taylor Perplex, which seems to revolve around whether James was a verier godsend when he was gracing Macdougal Street with the Flying Machine, discovering the Beatles on Apple, or now. My answer: none of the above. Which leaves an even more perplexing question: which god is supposed to have sent him? Not the one in Rock and Roll Heaven, that's for sure. B-

Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon [Warner Bros., 1971]
If even his admirers acknowledge that his music has lost some of its drive (lost some of its drive?), then even a sworn enemy can admit that he's capable of interesting songs and intricate music. Having squandered most of the songs on his big success, he's concentrating on the intricate music--the lyrics are more onanistic than ever, escapist as a matter of conscious thematic decision. From what? you well may wonder. From success, poor fella. Blues singers lived on the road out of economic necessity, although they often got into it; Taylor is an addict, pure and simple. A born-rich nouveau star who veers between a "homestead on the farm" (what does he raise there, hopes?) and the Holiday Inn his mean old existential dilemma compels him to call home deserves the conniving, self-pitying voice that is his curse. Interesting, intricate, unlistenable. C+

One Man Dog [Warner Bros., 1972]
James Taylor with panache. C+

Gorilla [Warner Bros., 1975]
This is no better than Mud Slide Slim (several good songs if you care about James's agonies) or One Man Dog (several interesting experiments if you care about James's ideas), and although it is better than Walking Man, so is The Best of the Cowsills. Basically a solid piece of singer-songwriter product--I might actively enjoy "Lighthouse" or "Angry Blues" if someone else sang them, and I enjoy "Gorilla" and "Mexico" now. So why do his devotees regard it as a heartening comeback? Because its desecration of Marvin Gaye has propelled it into the top ten? Or because they never cared about his agonies or ideas either? C+

Greatest Hits [Warner Bros., 1976]
As egotists go, Taylor is a talent--a gifted guitarist, a better-than-average melodist, a pithy lyricist whose feeling for Americanese is warm if corny. And his voice you can get used to--it's soulful in its way, and he can phrase. But melodies aside, he's not a star for his virtues. He's a star because he's an egotist--because he vaunts his sensitivity so expertly. So it's inevitable that this best-of should shortchange his sense of humor ("Gorilla," "Chili Dog," "Money Machine") and horror ("Knocking 'Round the Zoo," "Junkie's Lament") and preserve his disgraceful covers of "You've Got a Friend" and "How Sweet It Is." If you want "Fire and Rain," buy Sweet Baby James. At least it's a piece of history. C

JT [Columbia, 1977]
James sounds both awake--worth a headline in itself--and in touch; maybe CBS gave him a clock radio for opening an account there. "Handy Man" is a transcendent sex ballad, while "I Was Only Telling a Lie" and "Secret o' Life" evoke comparison with betters on the order of the Stones and Randy Newman, so that the wimpy stuff--which still predominates--sounds merely laid-back in contrast. Best since Sweet Baby James, shit--some of this is so wry and lively and committed his real fans may find it obtrusive. B

Flag [Columbia, 1979]
What's wrong with most of these songs is that Taylor is singing them. He can sing, sure--the "Day Tripper" cover and "Is That the Way You Look" show off his amused, mildly funky self-involvement at its sharpest and sexiest. But too often the material reveals him at his sharpest and most small-minded; John Lennon might get away with "I Will Not Lie for You," but JT's whine undermines whatever honesty the sentiment may have. C+

New Moon Shine [Columbia, 1991] Dud

Hourglass [Columbia, 1997]
"Line 'Em Up"; "Walking My Baby Back Home" Choice Cuts

See Also