The voice of James Taylor is a national treasure. It has a clarity and a lyricism unmatched by most artists, contemporary or otherwise. Buying a track or two from “Before This World” is worth it just to hear him sing, regardless of the music.
“Before This World” is Taylor’s first album of original material - aside from album closer “Wild Mountain Thyme” - since 2002. These songs were written when he deliberately cut himself off from daily life to have time to write. It is a personal album that examines interests close to his heart - his love of the Boston Red Sox, what soldiers go through - in the folkish style he has perfected.
He is backed on the album by the longtime band that he told USA Today is “my family in a way.” They excel at contributing the necessary color for each song to be distinctive and entertaining. The music is excellent when complementing Taylor’s voice or soloing. It is weaker when it takes focus away from Taylor’s singing, as on portions of album opener “Today Today Today.”
Taylor also has some special guests perform on this album. Yo-Yo Ma contributes an exquisite cello part to “You and I Again” that adds an extra dimension to the melancholy wistfulness that Taylor’s voice creates.
Sting also has a good duet with Taylor on the title song, harmonizing in a manner that supplements the song rather than dominating it.
The mood of the album changes from song to song. Some are wistful, some have a rollicking energy, and the presence of some drums adds a military feel to the soldier’s ballad “Far From Afghanistan.”
Despite these changes in mood, the songs of “Before This World” do not change from genre to genre. There is no abrupt switch to an electronic guitar, or a sudden blare of jazzy saxophones. This keeps the album anchored.
“Before This World” is the sonic equivalent of a chair made by a very competent woodworker. It does not seek to redefine music. It still has some moments that are quite original, though.
There is one idiosyncratic moment where Taylor’s voice fades into that of one of his young sons to bring his boyhood memory of seeing the Red Sox play to more vivid life. It is the closest thing to a flashback I have ever heard in music.
Aside from that novel technique, “Before This World” is more focused on being the best wheel it can be, rather than a reinvention of the wheel. It is a fun use of 41 minutes.