FOR TODAY’S GENERATION of pop music fans, the initials “JT” may stand for Justin Timberlake. But for those of a certain age, they will always be synonymous with another JT: James Taylor, who – lo and behold – recently scored his first No. 1 album on the Billboard music charts at the age of 67 with Before This World, his first recording of original material since 2002.
Forty-five years after the iconic Sweet Baby James swept in the era of the singer-songwriter with all its melancholic introspection, Taylor’s music has grown into a celebration of simple pleasures, marked by peaceful acceptance and wonder at the overlooked gifts that often lie right in front of us.
Before This World is more a continuation than a culmination of a career that has now encompassed 17 studio albums, five Grammys, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. It doesn’t break any particularly new ground, which is just as it should be. Like a dependable comfort zone, it brings the best of Taylor’s signature laid-back style to songs that span a range of emotions.
Taylor (who critic Stephen Holden once described as the “Jimmy Stewart of folk rock”) has long had one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, often underrated for the masterful sense of phrasing behind the folksy timbre. Its soft resonance still registers as strongly as ever.
There’s a lot that’s full circle for Taylor in Before This World. In his eponymously titled debut album from 1968, he sang about going to “Carolina in My Mind.” Here, he ventures cross-country to “Montana” and the same sense of longing for a quiet space that offers “wood for the woodstove and water for coffee/Somethin’ I can still understand.”
Also from that first album, the classic “Something in the Way She Moves” has evolved into “You and I Again,” about the happiness (“In the time we have here/Maybe we have it all”) that Taylor has found in marriage to third wife Caroline, to whom the song is dedicated.
Though the nostalgia can sometimes veer into the sentimental, as in “Angels of Fenway,” a catchy, though schmaltzy ode to citizens of Red Sox Nation, it’s more than made up for by the title track. It brings together many of the familiar themes in Taylor’s work, and is probably best captured in the lines:
The world is old and it will never last
Our share of joy is in the moment past
For Taylor fans, Before This World is a reassuring return of the timeless troubadour whose songs provided a large chunk of the soundtrack of their youth. For new audiences, it’s as good an introduction as any to one of the most enduring artists in pop music.
Welcome back, JT. It’s like you’ve never been gone.