A Panel of Moms Reviews James Taylor's 'Before This World'

James Taylor
James Taylor performs during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Previously: A Panel of Dads Reviews Bob Dylan's Shadows in the Night

Moms love him. Dads want to be him. Kids go see him play at Tanglewood because it's a required trip at summer camp.

He's James Taylor, the humble, golden-voiced god of '70s folk-rock, and he's back after a lengthy recording break. Before This World, out June 16, is his first album of original songs in 13 years. But James Taylor has never been much of a critics' artist. ("Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau once called him "interesting, intricate, [and] unlistenable" and wondered: "Which god is supposed to have sent him?") So we're turning over this review to some of his real fans: a panel of moms.

My mom, specifically, and three of her James Taylor-digging friends, who gathered recently for an advance listen to Before This World. To be clear, these are average moms—that's the point. They are not experienced music critics or experts. And while they would not like me to reveal their ages here, suffice it to say that they're older than 20-something me and younger than my 70-something grandma. The panelists:

  • Liz: "I saw James Taylor when I was in college and Carol King opened for him, and I've liked him ever since." Other favorite acts include Joni Mitchell, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird and Neil Young.
  • Adrian: "His concert was my first date with my husband. About 10 years ago, for a birthday, my husband surprised me and took me up to Tanglewood for a James Taylor concert. He's kind of like a constant nice presence." Other favorite acts include Billy Joel, Gordon Lightfoot and Carole King.
  • Ronni: "I feel like I grew up with James Taylor and Carole King. I listen to them all the time." Other favorite acts include Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews Band.
  • Risa: "My sisters played a lot of his music. I heard it a lot through osmosis. I go to Tanglewood now. I really like his music." Other favorite acts include Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Elton John and Joni Mitchell.

Their verdict seemed to be: This James Taylor record sounds a whole lot like James Taylor. Here's a track-by-track review.

1. 'TODAY TODAY TODAY'

Ronni: I think his music is so familiar. Even though it's a different song, it's still familiar.
Liz: His voice still sounds really good. You could hear this in one of his older songs.
Adrian: I'm not sure I'm that impressed with the words yet.
Liz: Some singers sound old. He doesn't sound old.
Adrian: I could listen to his voice all day. But I don't think that that particular song grabbed me. It doesn't matter if I hear that song again.
Risa: It didn't speak to me. Today, tomorrow or yesterday.
Ronni: Has he done other types of music that don't sound like James Taylor?
Liz: He's done cover songs. Christmas songs. But I don't think he's done other types of music.

2. 'YOU AND I AGAIN'

Liz: I think Yo-Yo Ma is on this. I think it's a love song to his wife.
Ronni: Which one?
Liz: Third wife! Current wife.
Risa: I could just picture his face singing this.
Adrian: I like this one much better than the first one.
Ronni: I like the accompaniment! It's soft.
Adrian: [Recalling when she saw James Taylor in college] He was very different then. He was in a very troubled time then. It was at the war memorial in Syracuse. People wanted him to play "Fire and Rain." And he refused to play it. It was this whole controversy—should he have to play it because fans wanted him to play it? He was definitely struggling with his own personal demons. I loved listening to him then too. But I find him so much more mellow a person now. And you hear it in his songs.
Liz: He played at a college campus in the '70s when I saw him. And Carole King opened for him, and nobody wanted to hear Carole King because they didn't know who she was. He came out and yelled at the audience and said, "I refuse to come out here if you're not respectful to my friend."
[Moms get nostalgic and start watching a YouTube video of James Taylor in the 1970s.]
Ronni: Look at him! His hair!
Liz: Now he's bald.
Ronni: He's much mellower. That's what I take away from that song. He's just happier. He doesn't have to prove anything anymore. He's arrived. He's peaceful.

3. 'ANGELS OF FENWAY'

Liz: I don't really like this one. It's about baseball.
Adrian: You can't like this if you're a Yankees fan.... This is going to get great cheers at Tanglewood this year.
Ronni: I can see they're going to be playing this at every game.
Risa: I think it will grow on me. It's OK.
Adrian: It's a little whimsical.
Ronni: He just wanted to do something for his own team. It's James Taylor. It's not "Go, team!" It's like [in a mellow voice] "Angels of Fenway...."

4. 'STRETCH OF THE HIGHWAY'

Adrian: It's a little bit more of a country sound.
Ronni: It feels very much like his usual songs. They blend together for me sometimes.
Adrian: Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel, they have a lot of variety. I think Billy Joel has more variety. James Taylor—you gotta love him. But there's this common familiarity.
Ronni: They blend together. They don't stand out. But this is who he is. He's a folk singer. He's not a rock and roller.
Liz: And people like it! They continue to like it.
Adrian: Why mess with success?
Liz: I saw him years ago. We were in the front row, really close. And he was just so engaging and nice. His son Ben called in on the phone to sing a song for the concert. It was really nice to see that.
Ronni: I was at a Barbra Streisand concert, and her son sang with her.
Risa: Barbra Streisand is going to be at Madison Square Garden at the end of June.
Ronni: Is she really? [Conversation moves back to James Taylor.] Who among younger artists would you compare him to?
Liz: Elliott Smith?

James Taylor
Musician James Taylor performs at a talk titled "Beyond Religion: Ethics, Values and Wellbeing" in Boston in 2012. Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

5. 'MONTANA'

Risa: It's soothing!
Adrian: It's kind of like yoga! This music feels like being at yoga.
Ronni: Because you don't listen and sing along. You just learn the words through osmosis
Risa: Oh, this sounds like him. This is him. That note!
Ronni: This feels like, "There was a young cowboy...." It just has that same exact beat and feel and tone to it.
Adrian: It's not compelling. But it's soothing.
Liz: Yeah. Like all of his music.
Risa: I think this one sounds the most like his old stuff. Just the quality of his voice.
Liz: He also has backup singers now, which he didn't used to.
Ronni: It's enhanced. He's enhanced.
Liz: If it was Joni Mitchell singing backup, that would be good.
Adrian: That was just chill. It sounded like James Taylor.
Risa: Once you hear the song over and over, you're gonna love it. It's what we love about "Fire and Rain" and "Mexico."

6. 'WATCHIN' OVER ME'

Liz: At least this music sounds a little different
Ronni: I don't like the backup.
Liz: I think him alone is better.
Ronni: To have backup singers and all that changes the nature of who he is, I think.
Liz: I think this is one of his songs about drug abuse. He writes about it in almost every album he puts out.
Adrian: This is a little too commercial for me.... I think I would like it better if he was singing it by himself. I feel like it's his personal message. About what he's been through.
Ronni: He's been singing the same type of music for 40 years. He's doing what we know, but he's adding a little difference. It's not what we know, so we don't like the chorus in the background or the enhancement.
Liz: When he's done concerts at Tanglewood, does he have the whole band?
Adrian: In recent years, he has had other people there. I remember feeling like I enjoyed more the songs that he sang by himself and I didn't enjoy as much the ones with backup.
Ronni: Because we're purists.
Adrian: But that song in particular. It was what he sings. It was his message about life. And for me it got a little—it lost something for me to have the other voices in there.
Liz: When he sings alone, he's very vulnerable when he's telling you a story.

7. 'SNOWTIME'

Ronni: I like this one.
Risa: It's growing on me, actually.
Ronni: It's relatable. I can feel that it's cold and snowy. You can picture what he's saying as he's singing it.
Liz: Does it sound Latin, the music?
Ronni: Do you know when he wrote this? This past winter, in Massachusetts, there was a lot of snow.

8. 'BEFORE THIS WORLD/JOLLY SPRINGTIME'

Me: This song features Sting.
Liz: Yes! I'm very excited about that. See if you can hear Sting.
Adrian: I like this so much better than the backing vocals. The harmonizing...
Liz: This is a pretty song.
Adrian: This song is making me want to listen more. Some of the songs have been background, and I didn't care that much. This one and one of the others in the beginning...
Risa: I feel like what we are [liking] is the one that was most familiar to us.
Adrian: I disagree. The ones that were in the background—I liked having it in the background but wasn't really tuning in. This and the second song, I feel like I really tuned in to more. I would say it's not because it's familiar. It's because I'm drawn to hear what he's saying.
Ronni: I don't usually just sit and listen to an album. I can't remember the last time I just sat and listened to an album. Usually I'm in the car and the music's playing. It's a different experience.

James Taylor
Pop singers Elton John, Sting and James Taylor sing together during the ninth annual Rainforest Benefit Concert in 1998. Reuters Reuters

9. 'FAR AFGHANISTAN'

Risa: I thought we were going with a theme and it was going to be about summer.
Ronni: It's really hot in Afghanistan.
Ronni: I've never heard him sing political, antiwar songs. It's usually about his troubles, relationships.
Risa: I actually like this one. It's a good message. I like how it's said.
Adrian: It's once again telling a story. It's not hysterical or anything. But it's making a point.
Ronni: It's funny because I don't think of him as political.
Liz: He was going through all his drug stuff during the Vietnam War. So he didn't write about war; he wrote about his stuff. He was hospitalized, in a psychiatric hospital for a while. He said he almost died several times.
Ronni: There are so many musicians who get out there and use their fame as a platform. Whether it's for someone running for office or to raise money for starving children.
Risa: Springsteen does it all the time. Maybe he's just been afraid to put himself out there on that level.
Ronni: It's a story. Not a protest. It is ultimately antiwar. But he's not saying, "Stop the war." He's just sharing what it's like.
Liz: He also has 14-year-old sons now. That could be a reason to write a song like that.

10. 'WILD MOUNTAIN THYME'

Liz: I don't think it's an original.
Ronni: You can picture the Irish brogue. [Speaking in Irish accent] "The lassie come together!"
Risa: Why'd he choose to put one that's not an original of his?

FINAL VERDICT

Risa: Overall, I liked it. A lot of it did sound familiar to me. I liked the song with Sting. I thought it sounded very James Taylor-ish.
Adrian: Most albums that I like, I don't love every song. Each song is pleasant enough, and a lot of it's background, but there are certain songs I look more forward to. I think this would fall in that category. There are a few songs that grab me more. Otherwise, I certainly wouldn't mind it being background music.
Liz: But it's nice that he still sounds so good. I think that's really nice.
Adrian: It has to be really hard to feel like you have to come out with an album. I wonder why he even released it? Did he financially have to do this now? Or did he feel an artistic need to put out new music?
Ronni: So the question is, Why would he feel pressure to write a new album? I didn't love the album. I liked two songs a lot. The one about "Far Afghanistan" and the second one. The others were just—they just...blended...into...one...another. And I like James Taylor! But why did he need to write these songs?
Liz: You mean because he'll never top what he did before?
Ronni: No! It's just different words with slightly different tunes. It's fine in the background.
Risa: He doesn't go out on a limb. It's pretty constant.
Adrian: That's probably why we like him, because he's predictable and has been part of our lives in the same way for so long.
Ronni: In college, I would sit and listen to Cat Stevens and Carole King. Now it's not something I sit and do. It's background music for me. And yet because my husband plays in several types of bands, I love hearing live music! I love concerts! I didn't need to sit here and listen to James Taylor singing all these songs. I would have liked to hear one or two. And then maybe somebody else.

A Panel of Moms Reviews James Taylor's 'Before This World'