Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mid-'80's Schmaltz Leaves Me Indifferent With James Taylor's That’s Why I’m Here!

The Good: Decent vocals, A few good lyrics
The Bad: Boring, produced instrumentals, Short
The Basics: Very average James Taylor, That’s Why I’m Here is surprisingly bland and overproduced when it is not being repetitive and dull.

Sometimes, I hit ruts of very average works. This includes where I am falling on James Taylor's 1985 album That’s Why I’m Here, which I have been listening to for the last two days. Truth be told, I'm looking forward to moving on after this album; James Taylor seems to have some innate talents, but his works - in bulk - ultimately end up as fairly tiresome and I'm ready for some musical variety again! Without being insulting; and I've never endeavored to be while reviewing James Taylor, Taylor's works seem to act as something of a chameleon for Taylor in regards to style. In his early works, his songs are vocally driven folk-rock with the whole "one man and a guitar" thing that defined a lot of popular music in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Then, in the seventies, eighties and nineties, Taylor seemed to become obsessed with adding more production elements to his music, as was the style of the times and while it might have worked as part of the day when they were released, listening to some of those albums - like That’s Why I’m Here - now there is a very dated quality to the sound. Even now, as Taylor seems to help define the adult contemporary niche, it seems he is doing more original work than he did in the mid-80s.

With twelve songs, clocking out at 39:55, That’s Why I’m Here is arguably one of the least James Taylor-influenced albums of his that I have reviewed to date. On the writing front, Taylor wrote eight of the songs (to be fair, one of those is a twenty-five second instrumental reprise of the first track) and the other four are not even co-written by Taylor. He has cover songs from Livingston Taylor ("Going Around One More Time"), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ("My Romance"), Norman Betty and Charles Harden ("Everyday"), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). I had only heard of Bacharach and David before this album, though "Everyday" seems to be on a number of the James Taylor compilations I have listened to.

James Taylor provides all of the primary vocals, though he is not credited with them on all of the songs. As well, according to the liner notes, Taylor did not provide any of the instrumental performances on this album. He surrounds himself with notable vocalists and instrumentalists, like Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Graham Nash and David Sanborn, but he is not credited with even one guitar performance in the credits. At best, Taylor is given a co-producer's credit so it is hard to argue that Taylor did not create the album he wanted to with That’s Why I’m Here.

Largely, That’s Why I’m Here is mellow and overproduced and simply boring. The tracks which made this album successful in its day are "Only One," "Everyday" and - from what I hear - "Only A Dream In Rio." The title track pops up on some of Taylor's compilation albums, which is somewhat appropriate as it is possibly Taylor's most self-referential song. In fact, if anything perhaps that is why the album is so boring: the overall feeling is "this is James Taylor!" as opposed to "This is what James Taylor has to say . . ."

This comes through in a lot of the writing, for starters. The songs mix from being directly about James Taylor (“That’s Why I’m Here”) to storysongs about those peripherally in Taylor's (or his musical protagonist alter ego's) life ("Limousine Driver," "Mona") to just plain standards ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). There are fewer universal storysongs on this album or songs that are just about emotions, which tend to balance the specific songs on other albums better than this one does. Songs like "Mona" just seem tired in the writing department with lines like "Life's good friends are hard to find / And now one of mine is dead / And things I should have said to her / I shall say to you instead / Mona Mona / So much of you to love / Too much of you to take care of / Mona Mona / You got too big to keep / And too damn old to eat." When you're singing to your dead animal, it's a tough sell to a wide audience. Had the song stuck to a human subject (or not a cannibalistic protagonist, I suppose) it might have work, had Taylor also focused on the emotion of guilt for failing to say things when they still mattered, "Mona" could work. But regret over the things you never said to an animal you might have considered eating at some point . . . that's just schmaltz!

And Taylor is pretty much a master of schmaltz, that over-the-top sappy earnest emotive quality that is just too cheesy to be real. This is disappointing coming from an artist who actually has the ability to articulate complex ideas with a pretty impressive array of diction at his disposal. Instead, he comes up with songs that are repetitive and over-the-top obvious, like "Only One." Sure, it sounds good when Taylor sings "There's only one road before me / Too many turns in the way / Thousands of things to do today / Millions of moments I must admit / But only one only one / You are my only one you are my only one . . ." ("Only One") but the rhyme scheme is obvious and it gets only real quickly. Moreover, it is too simplistic for the notion it is describing; commitment and fidelity deserve a more complicated rhyme scheme than rhyming "one" with "one" over and over again.

It's not all bad and, in fact, Taylor does have one of his very best songs on That’s Why I’m Here. "Song For You Far Away" might well be the best song about loss Taylor ever did after "Fire And Rain." Anyone who is experiencing distance from or loss of a loved one can completely understand the loneliness Taylor describes as "Sitting here all alone / Is bringing it on again I'm gone again / Sitting here thinking of you / Is driving it home again / This is a song for you far away so far away . . ." ("Song For You Far Away"). As well, the song is one of the least produced and has an earnest quality to it that is heartwrenching, which is exactly what one wants from a song about loss and abandonment and distance.

This stands in direct contrast to most of the rest of the album. "Turn Away" is an upbeat pop-rock number that is terribly overproduced and strangely percussion-driven for a James Taylor track. Any number of the songs on this album are banal and directly "pop" in a way that makes them hold up poorly over multiple listens. Songs like That’s Why I’m Here, "Only One," and "Only A Dream In Rio" utilize a lot of instruments and backing vocals that overwhelm Taylor's own vocals more often than accent any of his points.

Taylor's vocals are generally good, but they do not stretch his range. As a result, songs like "Going Around One More Time" are immediately recognizable as James Taylor even though it was never a single. He is safely within his range, articulate but a very obvious, smooth vocal style that is exactly what we have heard from him before. Songs like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" are not reinterpreted in any new ways that make it his own and "My Romance" sounds like a Christmas carol!

The result is an album that is very mid-1980s in most of the most boring and obvious ways. Because all of the best songs on this album do appear on compilations Taylor has produced, it makes it very easy to recommend not picking this one up. That’s Why I’m Here is not bad in a way that one wants to strongly denounce it, but it is not good in a way that one wants to recommend buying it either. It's just remarkably average.

The best track is "Song For You Far Away," the low point is "Mona."

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
Never Die Young
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


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for other music reviews I have written!

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