In my home town, James Taylor was played (a lot, I should add) on the Easy Rock station. As a result, the music of James Taylor has always seemed a bit stiff to me. After listening to Sweet Baby James a few more times, and just sitting with it a bit and trying to understand it a bit more, it still felt a bit stagnant to me. What was I missing about this album?
I listened to it a few more times and started doing some reading, trying to gain a better understanding of the context within which this album was released. And that’s when I started to understand this album and its success. In a time dominated by music from The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the stripped down sound of James Taylor probably felt like a breath of fresh air. It is totally breezy! Its simple and has space in every track that really lets you hear Taylor’s beautifully simplistic guitar and lyrical imagery.
In “Oh, Susannah” you can practically hear the wind rustling between notes. “Sunny Skies” almost feels like it could be the opening of a 70s-version of the TV show ‘Friends”. Its got such an easy, upbeat feel to it. Most of the tracks on this album have a similar musical structure to them – and I don’t mean that in terms of the lyrical structure, I mean that in terms of the overall sound. The instrumentation and lyrics work together in a similar fashion for most of the tracks on this song. That said, “Steamroller” was a total shock to me when I heard it on the album. Its a bluesy-jazz tune with more vocal variations in one track than you can hear on the entire rest of the album. And I loved it! I was impressed that James Taylor, who I thought was just a nice, quiet man singing honestly about his troubles and his experiences, could put so much intensity into his vocals (a great example is when he sings “I’m a napalm bomb for ya baby”).
“Fire and Rain” is a song that I feel like everybody knows, and again, when I really started to listen to this song, I started to understand it on a much deeper level. Its immensely personal, referring to the loss of a friend (Suzanne) who committed suicide, as well as referencing his own personal struggles with depression and drug addiction. He also sings “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”, which is a mention of his work with The Flying Machine, which was a band that Taylor pursued a career with prior to his solo success with Peter Asher, Paul McCartney and Apple Records. Once I began to see the depth of this song, and recognize the personal stories that Taylor worked into his songs, his music became so much more meaningful to me.
To think that Sweet Baby James was released in 1970 in the midst of the pyschedelic rock era is amazing to me. I still won’t say that its one of my favourites, but I do feel like I understand its musical significance in a very different way than I did before I decided to write about it. So that’s great news! Sweet Baby James has a totally different sound and honesty than any other music I’ve heard from the late 60s and early 70s.