Album review

James Taylor plays it safe on new album

New ‘Before This World’ doesn’t wander far from his successful path

James Taylor’s new album includes an ode to the 2004 Red Sox.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
James Taylor’s new album includes an ode to the 2004 Red Sox.

It’s true of so many artists: We don’t want them to change. They’re fine just the way they are, a constant companion through the decades, preferably with no sudden swerves or bumps in the road.

James Taylor embodies that type of artist you can rely on. His troubles and motifs have been different over the years, but he has mostly mined the same mellow gold since his rise in the late 1960s as a leading light of the singer-songwriter movement. Unlike his contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Taylor almost always colors within the lines.

Consider it a compliment, then, that his new album sounds very much like . . . well, like James Taylor. That’s all you need to know to decide whether you’ll enjoy “Before This World,” which will be released on Tuesday. It is the Massachusetts native’s first album of original material since 2002’s “October Road.” In the intervening years, Taylor put his stamp on pair of covers collections, a Christmas release, and two live records (including one with Carole King, his old friend and recent tourmate).


His latest, though, lighted a match under his songwriting, prompting him to hole up in a friend’s apartment in Newport, R.I., for solitary writing sessions. “I’m re-encouraged that I can still do this and it still works,” he recently told the Globe’s Sarah Rodman.

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Working with his longtime band and producer Dave O’Donnell, Taylor sets the album’s folksy tone on the opening “Today Today Today,” a down-home story song that’s meandering but exceedingly pleasant and soft focus.

“You and I Again,” featuring Yo-Yo Ma’s reverent cello, is a simple but affecting love song, presumably for Taylor’s wife, Kim. Still warm and engaging, Taylor’s voice meshes beautifully with that of Sting on the title track, which bleeds into another piece called “Jolly Springtime.”

His heart is in the right place on “Angels of Fenway,” an interpretation of the 2004 American League Championship Series when the Red Sox trounced the Yankees, but the production is sickly sweet. His wife and one of their sons, Henry, contribute harmonies (never a good idea). And the chorus is as heavy-handed as anything Taylor has ever written. “Good idea, but the execution was minor league,” as one reader recently posted. (Still, the song will likely win over fans when Taylor performs it at Fenway Park on Aug. 6, sharing the bill with Bonnie Raitt.)

When he settles into an easy groove on “Stretch of the Highway” and “Montana,” Taylor is finally working in classic mode. He occasionally even flexes some songwriting muscle. “Far Afghanistan” is an interesting detour, a new side of Taylor as he ponders the hardships of a soldier and the devastation of war.


It’s not enough to distract from the glaring fact that “Before This World” doesn’t add much to Taylor’s beloved catalog, but doesn’t detract from it, either. The prevailing notion is clear: Easy does it and right down the middle of the road — exactly where we expect him to be.

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.