So I bought a CD this week.
Rest assured, that doesn’t happen very often. There’s very little new music that interests me, and on the rare occasion that I decide I want to add a song or two to my music library, I turn to iTunes and drop 99 cents for a single track rather than risk buying a whole album.
Back in the days when I was an avid music consumer, I, like everyone else, usually had to buy an LP that included the few songs I liked alongside a whole lot of filler. Now that I have more freedom to pick, choose and digitally download, I don’t even look at CDs on the shelf in the store anymore.
I’d bet it’s probably been 13 years or so since my last CD purchase, which, not coincidentally, was the last time James Taylor produced an album of new music prior to “Before This World.” It's Taylor’s new CD that prompted this exception to my usual buying habits.
It’s not unusual for an artist of Taylor’s stature to wait so long between albums. Indeed, a good chunk of his audience probably wouldn’t mind if he never recorded anything new and just hit the road to sing all the old favorites. Most of the superstars of his era are still hot properties on tour, even though they haven’t had a hit in decades.
After all, the Rolling Stones are still the hottest live act in the world, and they released their most recent album a little more than 10 years ago. And Billy Joel stopped recording new music in 1993, but, given his concert grosses, nobody seems to have noticed. Taylor doesn’t need to add songs to his venerable catalogue, so why does he bother?
It’s also true that this disc sounds a lot like the old discs. Every track is heavy with acoustic guitar and other string instruments, and Taylor sings all of these tunes in his clear, vibrant baritone voice that doesn’t seem to have aged a day. Taylor is not trying to reinvent himself; this isn’t “James Taylor Does Hiphop.”
Had “Before This World” been released 10, 20 or 30 years ago, it would have been received as music entirely consistent with the rest of Taylor’s remarkable body of work. Some would argue, then, that “Before This World” isn’t a bad album, but rather an unnecessary one.
Yeah, those people are wrong.
Everything about “Before This World” is delightful, and the fact that it feels familiar even though the songs are new is, to me, a bonus, not a drawback. The fact that James Taylor is confident enough with who he is that he feels no need to update his sound means that every song feels intimate and personal, like a visit from an old friend.
And while the music sounds ageless, the lyrics have a hard-earned wisdom and insight that Taylor has gained in the course of his 67 years on earth. There is world-weariness and melancholy, and there is also gratitude and grace, all of which a younger singer would find difficult to replicate.
There is also the gorgeous song “Angels of Fenway,” which, although I have never been to Boston, single-handedly turned me into a Red Sox fan. That’s an even bigger deal than getting me to buy a CD.
I think other artists who have transitioned from songwriters to nostalgia acts should take a cue from Taylor’s example. Word is that Rod Stewart is following suit with a fresh new album that critics are calling a return to form. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but there’s no reason that an old singer can’t write wonderful new music.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.