I don’t remember a lot of specifics about my childhood. There are overarching, recurring themes—begrudgingly practicing violin in the hopes of ever getting past scales, my Dad getting home late from working on the railroad, the monotony and frustration of school. But when I reflect on my relationship with both music and family, one artist is inseparable from my formative years. There’s no memory more vivid from my childhood than my mom playing her cassette of JT, James Taylor’s eighth album. I frequently heard the album in the early 2000s, in our 1988 Volvo wagon, decades after its 1977 release. But something about it stuck with me, and one of its tracks, “Your Smiling Face,” is the first James Taylor song I can remember not only hearing, but falling in love with.
The impact of JT varies from listen to listen, as different songs take on bigger meanings or a new perspective is found within its lyrics. I am much older now than when I began listening to the album, with exponentially more worries now than I had at six. With a brain full of “what ifs,” I frequently turn to the opening of “Secret O’ Life”: “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time / any fool can do it / there ain’t nothing to it.” Taylor’s calm demeanor and ability to quickly simplify the chaos in which we exist has become a grounding message. Yes, it’s almost laughable when he sings, “the thing about time is time isn’t really real,” procrastinating the reality of it all, but the track invites us to stop taking it all too seriously.
The relative ease of this perspective contradicts the state of Taylor’s life at the time of this album’s creation and release. He had been struggling intensely with addiction, experiencing a vicious cycle of getting clean and then relapsing. And though he was married to Carly Simon at the time of JT, they would be divorced just a few years later. In January 1977, Simon gave birth to their son Ben, and on March 24, James began recording the album with producer Peter Asher in Los Angeles. While doctors insisted baby Ben was fine, Simon felt strongly that their son was ill, with even Taylor eventually telling her to leave him alone. In Sheila Weller’s book Girls Like Us, focusing on the lives of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King, Weller described the time period as one of havoc. Weller wrote, “Despite his success, James was not in control. He was binge drinking—going on benders with his friend Jimmy Buffett, blacking out at parties.” These images add depth and sadness to the tracks on JT that I was incapable of picking up on when I listened to it as a child.
Given Taylor’s tumultuous relationship with Carly Simon, there was a battle going on within his own mind while working on JT. The peaks and valleys of their love are depicted on songs like the intensely intimate “There We Are” as he sings, “So though I never say that I love you, I love you / Darling I do / Carly, I do love you.” There’s a shocking quality to this admission of love—even now, it’s rare to hear a name drop like that from another songwriter. These dedications are so often cloaked in pet names or aliases, either aiming to keep their lives more private or save themselves from later regrets. Taylor expands on this extreme end of honesty and openness on the album’s following song, “Another Grey Morning.” A darker, more melancholic track, it’s the one I find stuck in my head most often these days. Perhaps it’s because of the accurate picture it paints of depression (“Well, what am I to do today / With too much time and so much sorrow”), or the soothing, raindrop-like percussion, but it listens like the rawest track on the album. Taylor yearns to understand his wife, a mother to two children, facing an obstacle he can’t comprehend.
JT found Taylor leaning into his softer rock roots, mellowing out from the more electric, blues-rock found on its predecessors Mud Slide Slim and Gorilla. “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.” is the album’s loudest moment, and it still feels tame compared to Sweet Baby James’ “Steamroller Blues.” There’s a slowed down, relaxed soundscape pushing JT. His cover of Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man” slowed the track down considerably and stripped it of its shimmering danceable energy. Taylor’s version infused the track with a new twist, pushing the track in a more direct, loving way—painting himself as a genuine companion, perhaps trying to mend some of his public image. The cover went on to win Taylor a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. JT was also nominated for Album of the Year, but it lost to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. While it may have felt like a tone change for Taylor, JT is chock full of his effervescent vocals that carry his range seamlessly, never letting on a strain, and his guitar playing is poignant throughout. Album closer “If I Keep My Heart Out of Sight” finds a merging of these two talents, as his vocals reach a new level, matched with a dreamy blend of instrumentals.
In reflecting on JT and the change in my understanding of where Taylor was at in his life and career, I feel a deeper sense of understanding with my relistens now than in those car rides as a kid. Taylor was 29 when the album was released, and I’m approaching 28. While I turn to the album for the expected feelings of nostalgia and comfort that his music brings, I’ve also felt a stronger connection to his music as I’ve grown and learned the complexities behind it.
Throughout my life, my love for James Taylor’s music has been a constant, a grounding reminder of what matters to me. In July 2017, I got to see him at Tanglewood in the Berkshires with my family. Seeing him live brought my history of listening to his music full circle, with a bunch of other great musicians joining him onstage, with Bonnie Raitt making a surprise appearance as well. At intermission, he hung around onstage and signed whatever albums people handed to him, and my mom got him to sign my vinyl copy of JT. It’s on display in my apartment now, a constant reminder of a favorite memory, meshed with a record that I can (hopefully) play for years to come.
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