Monday, March 26, 2012

It's Not Just That I'm Getting Tired Of James Taylor, Never Die Young Is Mediocre Taylor!

The Good: Good voice, Decent mellow tunes, Some lyrics
The Bad: Some repetitive lyrics/sound, SHORT!
The Basics: A decent James Taylor album, Never Die Young is unfortunately short and lyrically divisive, reducing the overall strength of a musically rich album.

It feels like every time I seem to be nearing the end of my James Taylor odyssey, I get another album by him that crosses my desk. As I prepare to take a few day's break to return to Janis Ian's works, I find myself eager to review Never Die Young, the last album before that break to cross my desk. Never Die Young is actually a fairly decent James Taylor album that seems to be straddling the gap in albums between his early, acoustic-sounding works and the later, more produced works. It is an interesting blend of sounds for Taylor and the album would certainly replay better were it not for the repetitiveness of many of the lyrics and the short duration of the album.

That said, Never Die Young is a musically rich enough album to keep the listener intrigued over several listens to the disc, though it is also fairly unsurprising to me that with all of the James Taylor albums I have listened to of late, only one of the songs from this album appeared on any of the compilations.

With only ten tracks coming in at 40:22, Never Die Young is a fairly collaborative effort for James Taylor. Three of the songs are co-written with others, Taylor provides the primary vocals, but is one of two primary guitarists on the album. As well, Taylor is not credited with playing any other instruments and he is not a producer or co-producer on the album. As a result, how much of this endeavor is the musical vision of James Taylor is subject for debate. This is not to say the album is not good, but given that it is different and he seems to have taken steps back in terms of instrumentation and writing, the question has to be asked: how much of this is what Taylor wanted the album to be?

Never Die Young falls perfectly into the late 1980's, early 1990's easy rock, pop-funk that was actually remarkably mainstream at the time. This is the style that was popularized by Richard Marx and the solo efforts of George Michael. James Taylor actually sounds rather Marx-like on this album, save that Taylor seems able to hit the notes and hold them without the strain or raspy quality that Marx often had. What tends to bring people to the later albums of James Taylor, more than the sound, is the lyrics.

Never Die Young is a mixed bag in that department. The album is made up of a number of Taylor's musical storysongs, like the best of his albums have. This album seems much more preoccupied with the storysongs than with the emotive poems Taylor usually mixes in with the storysongs. While "Valentine's Day" and "First Of May" seem to pay tribute to the melancholy days that Taylor tries to poetically invoke, they fall a bit flatter than earlier songs of his.

Take, for example, "Valentine's Day." The song is poetically interesting when read, but as a song it seems terribly uninspired as a list poem. When Taylor sings the lines "Beneath the tide the fishes glide / Fin to fin and side to side / For fishy love has now begun / Fishy love, finny fun / Paper moon, paper heart / Pink balloon, work of art / Al Capone, Bugs Moran / Valentine's Day" ("Valentine's Day") the lines come across as singsongy and ridiculous. There is no sense of irony or even a sense of deeper meaning to the lines. It is almost like Taylor looked around at his surroundings and just made a list of things that rhymed. It's possible for an artist like James Taylor to do a song like that that is fun and carefree, but here he performs it like it is deep and meaningful and it falls flat.

On the flip side, "Home By Another Way" actually has some of the depth that fans of Taylor's have come to expect of him. On that song, Taylor creates a rather original song paying tribute to the three wise men. He sings "Home is where they want you / You can more or less assume that you'll be welcome in the end / Mustn't let King Herod haunt you so / Or fantasize his features when you're looking at a friend / Well it pleasures me to be here / And to sing this song tonight / They tell me that life is a miracle / And I figure that they're right" ("Home Another Way"). Taylor is not singing an original storysong, but he is retelling a familiar story with a decent level of diction and intrigue to create a song that tells a new perspective on the familiar story. Indeed, in the Bible, Jesus's birth is celebrated and Taylor sings about the reasonable fear those visiting the baby must have had and that perspective and level of insight is pretty wonderful!

The album's title track, which opens Never Die Young is a decent anthem to life and it works, as well. On that song, Taylor makes his poem actually rock when he presents a song about the relationship between nature and life and the wish of all living things to live well when he wrote "Syncronized with the rising moon / Even with the evening star / They were true love written in stone / They were never alone, they were never that far apart / And we who couldn't bear to believe they might make it / We had to close our eyes / Cut up our losses into doable doses / Ration our tears and sighs" (Never Die Young). If nothing else, this album splits the listener between the idea that James Taylor can still write and that he's stretching for something to say. Ultimately, what he wants to say seems to come through enough that it makes it worth listening to the album a few times.

As well, Never Die Young is musically richer than some of Taylor's other albums. While the predominate sound is light pop-rock that is almost always called "adult contemporary" now, the album mixes it up a bit, too. "T-Bone" and "Runaway Boy" are essentially Country songs, "First Of May" has an almost Caribbean sound before it becomes an average pop song. There is another that sounds like a Gospel track and "Sweet Potato Pie," for as little as I like is, at least sounds unlike anything else Taylor has done since his unfortunate song "Chili Dog."

Never Die Young certainly keeps the listener interested with a decent mix of musical styles that work quite well to create a more full and vibrant sound than some of Taylor's more narcoleptic albums.

That said, Taylor's vocals are firmly rooted in this album within his comfortable range and he plays that mellow, articulate smooth sound well, but this album does not illustrate any expansion of vocal range. He does, however, show some decent ability to hold notes that he has not, traditionally, done and that helps the album, too. In fact, more than any other James Taylor album in the last few weeks I've listened to, the predominate feeling I have when this one ended was wishing there was more on it to hear.

The best track is "Home By Another Way," the weak track is "Sweet Potato Pie."

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine
James Taylor
Sweet Baby James
Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon
One Man Dog
Greatest Hits
New Moon Shine
James Taylor Live
Greatest Hits 2
Appalachian Journey (with Yo-Yo Ma)
October Road
The Best Of James Taylor
One Man Band


Check out how this album stacks up against other music I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized by the quality of the reviewed work in order from best to worst!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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