James Taylor is long past grand gestures and reinventions, past the need to prove himself or worry about what people think.
"Before This World" (Concord), Taylor's first album of new original material since 2002's "October Road," shows the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's resolve to do what he wants, which also happens to be what he does best.
The tales Taylor weaves on "Before This World" will rank among some of his most memorable. They may not match the rawness of his early work, but what they lack in emotion is usually made up for in storytelling skill. If the 67-year-old Taylor's life was still full of lonely times when he could not find a friend, he would be having serious problems.
Instead of pain, we get "Montana," a gorgeous piece of writing about the beauty of contentment, about recognizing that the grass will always be greener on the other side, but that your grass is pretty good, too. "I'm not smart enough for this life I've been living -- a little bit slow for the pace of the game," Taylor sings, before later recognizing, "The world is in motion and cannot be slowed."
For the most part, Taylor uses the same palette of sounds on "Before This World" that he has used for decades -- a lush mix of folk, rock and acoustic blues that perfectly suits his warm voice. Though the combination may not be new, Taylor still manages to roll out some surprises.
"You and I Again" is stunning in its simplicity, a tender love song that could fit easily into the American Songbook. On "SnowTime," Taylor manages to connect getting lost in downtown Toronto to a Latin-tinged dream of sun and sambas. And on "Angels of Fenway," he builds a sweet little ballad about life as a Boston Red Sox fan, complete with good-natured ribbing of Yankees fans and a warmhearted scene of a boy going to games with his grandmother.
"Before This World" captures a master at work, showing the pleasure a great artist can have crafting something new.
THE GRADE A