Skip to main content

Rock Bottom: James Taylor

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted three sources, the AllMusic Guide and Rolling Stone (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.
Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question. As a result the ratings skew high. Similarly, we can conclude that albums with lowish ratings or few reviews are especially disliked.

* * *

Maybe this is where my methodology fails me. I love James Taylor a little more than the next guy, but even I was shocked at what my research turned up. Basically, there is no bad James Taylor album. And if you are in disbelief, consider this: In 40 years of recording, the man has only released 16 albums. Elton John has been recording a comparable amount of time, and he put out album number 16 in 1981. He's at 30 now. Besides proving that Taylor is definitely not prolific, it's also evidence of strict quality control.

As it is, only two of his albums can reasonably contend for the title of "worst." The AllMusic Guide gives 1972's One Man Dog and 1974's Walking Man each 2 1/2 stars. Amazon.com reviewers were hesitant to disparage either, feeling mostly adoration for the former, and directing some gentle letdowns toward Walking Man ("mixed bag" and "good not great" are as bad as it gets). That, added to the fact that it remains his poorest selling album, lead it to get the nod as "worst."

I can see why. Don't get me wrong; Walking Man is far from a bad album. In fact, it received a rapturously wordy review from Rolling Stone. AllMusic Guide's William Ruhlmann was not so kind, writing that the record "sounded like the statement of a songwriter who either had nothing to say or didn't know how to say it." While I don't agree with the first part of that assessment, the second part is right on. Walking Man's problem is not one of substance, but of style.

Some artists are eclectic and experimental by nature. James Taylor is not one of those artists. Over half of Walking Man features the warm, mannered types of songs you expect. Some of them are pretty great. The title track, of course is a classic. It's an earthy, enveloping song about the titular character, a man with no true place. Rather than painting the walking man as spiritually beyond the rest of us, Taylor makes it clear that he has no true direction or destination. It's a song about being lost.

Other traditional Taylor tunes include the folk-pop Let It All Fall Down (featuring background vocalists Carly Simon and Paul and Linda McCartney), the hoedown Me and My Guitar, and the catchy Ain't No Song.

I'm not a person who blames production for the problems of an album or song. I'm too much of a pragmatist. But as I wrote in the Bowie entry, production is only a problem when it mars a good song. That's what happens here, on two songs. Hello Old Friend, about returning home from tour, sports a great melody and above-average lyrics. Unfortunately, the presentation makes it sound like a Bette Midler or Barbara Streisand showstopper. That's simply not Taylor's strength.

Similarly, Migration has a good melody, a great vocal, and mysterious lyrics. But once again, the arrangement is misguided, sounding a little bit Pink Floyd, a little bit Spinal Tap's Stonehenge. The song makes needless use of a Vox Humana, a ghostly pipe organ sound.

Those two added to a lifeless take on Chuck Berry's The Promised Land help to sink side two of the album. Thankfully, things come around at the end with the closer, Fading Away. Serving as an informal bookend to Walking Man, the two songs could conceivably be about the same character: "You can strike up the band without me / You can have your doubts about me / But I'm just fading away" Taylor sings. They aren't the words of someone who's got it all figured out.

Taylor himself wasn't quite as lost as the characters he wrote about, but Walking Man was obviously a searching sort of album. And ultimately, James found what he was looking for. He learned his lesson, and never again strayed too far from his signature sound.

Sometimes you have to leave home to truly appreciate it.

Author's note: This is album review #192.

Comments

Bill said…
Walking Man features one of the lamest Chuck Berry covers of all time-- and to make matters worse, it is of one of Berry's best numbers. James Taylor's work is not without its pleasures, but he should never be permitted to attempt material written by African-Americans.
Paul V. Allen said…
I completely agree about the Chuck Berry cover. Anyway, Elvis did the definitive cover version of that song.

Popular posts from this blog

12 by Weezer

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This one features... I decided to take an unconventional route for this 12 by, and pretend Weezer have already released a "greatest hits." Here's what I think that would look like:  1) "Buddy Holly", 2) "Undone - the Sweater Song", 3) "My Name Is Jonas", 4) "The Good Life", 5) "El Scorcho", 6) "Hash Pipe", 7) "Island in the Sun", 8) "Dope Nose", 9) "Keep Fishin'", 10) "Beverly Hills", 11) "We Are All On Drugs", 12) "Pork and Beans".  Here's a different take: 1. " Say It Ain't So"  (from Weezer , 1994)  A little bit heavy, a little bit catchy, quiet-loud dynamics. So basically, it's Pixies lite. The song is interesting lyrically because it's basically nonsense until the "Dear daddy..." bridge, which lets out a t

12 by Jenny Lewis

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This one features... Completely separate from Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis has put together an impressive oeuvre that is very difficult to winnow down to just 12 songs (if you include her work with Rilo Kiley, fuhgeddaboudit). But I've made what I feel is a valiant attempt. Because I admire Jenny's lyrics so much, I'm going to limit my commentary to a favorite couplet from the song. (If you have Amazon Music Unlimited, you can listen along here .) 1. "Rise Up With Fists!!!" (from Rabbit Fur Coat , 2005) "But you can wake up younger, under the knife / And you can wake up sounder, if you get analyzed." 2. "Melt Your Heart" (from  Rabbit Fur Coat , 2005) "It's like a valentine from your mother / It's bound to melt your heart." 3. "Born Secular" (from Rabbit Fur Coat , 2005) "God works in mysterious ways / And God give

12 by Vicious Vicious

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course). This one features... If you need a reference point for the work of Vicious Vicious mastermind Erik Appelwick, the most appropriate would be Beck. Like Mr. Hansen, Minnesota-based Appelwick has the ability to navigate between making you laugh and making you cry and making you want to dance, and embraces genres from country to R& B to folk to pop.  I've included songs from the two albums Appelwick did under the name Tropical Depression, because honestly there's not a lot of difference between that and Vicious Vicious.  I very literally  wrote the book  on Appelwick, so please feel confident you are hearing from an authority here.  If you have Amazon Music Unlimited, you can listen to an alternate version of list here  (sadly, not all of VV's music is on the service). 1. "Shake That Ass on the Dance Floor" (from Blood + Clover , 2003) A loungy, laconic come-on