I get why James Taylor’s rep is not so cool. He’s very, very sincere, and he makes songs called “Shower the People” and “Secret of Life.” But look: I grew up in New England, where Taylor is treated like an unofficial mascot. He’s the sound of road trips and grown-up dinner parties. He’s just kind of a given, and he’s welcome every place, any time, in New England (even when he forgets which America-themed song he’s supposed to sing at Fenway Park).
My favorite James Taylor song has always been “Something in the Way She Moves,” a song about how nice James Taylor feels when the person he loves is around. The concept is very simple, so the arrangement is sparse: there’s just guitar, bass, and vocals. I also love that this is not a song about the joy of being in love, it’s about feeling comfortable and content when in the presence of the woman he not only loves, but likes best. If she’s talking, It doesn’t matter what words she uses: “she says them mostly just to calm me down.” That’s an important thing to have.
“Something in the Way She Moves” first appeared on Taylor’s self-titled debut in 1968. James Taylor was one of the first releases on the Beatles’ Apple Records (George Harrison nicked the title of this song as the first line of his great song, and the phrase “I feel fine” pops up here in homage). Because of contractual reasons, “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina In My Mind” had to be re-recorded for Taylor’s Greatest Hits in 1976, and those are the versions that get the most attention today.
Around the time that James Taylor was released, Taylor fell back in to heroin addiction after a brief break from the drug; for this reason, he was unable to promote the record, and James Taylor didn’t sell. Which leads me to something else: you’d never guess it, but James Taylor has been through some shit. He stayed at McLean Hospital for severe depression and battled heroin addiction much of his young adult life. In my opinion, this background has always lent a bit of sadness to Taylor’s music. Even when he’s singing about showering the people with love, his voice always has an edge of disappointment, as if he’s trying to comfort himself back to happiness with his warm blanket of a voice.
Some would argue that James Taylor’s voice is more of a wet blanket than a warm one, but don’t listen to them. Just listen to him sing about how nice it is to have someone to love, and, like Taylor, be thankful for simple things.
“You know everybody’s got their own way of doing anything. Like, take this particular song for instance. It’s been done by many, but I’ve gotta do it my way.”
That’s how Bobby Womack starts this version of James Taylor’s signature song, “Fire and Rain,” and he wasn’t kidding. It’s not a revision of the song, but Womack changes the melody here and there, adds vocal flourishes, and changes its instrumentation from folk-rock to slow-burn R&B (provided by the legendary musicians of Muscle Shoals). I’m usually a stickler when it comes to covers—change the melody? Why would you change that?—but I love this rendition, which was released only seven months after Taylor’s.
You can tell that Womack understands what Taylor was going for in this song, a lament about the plane crash that killed his friend. He trades Taylor’s emotional detachment for a sadder, angrier response. It’s how you might imagine Taylor singing the song after a few weeks, after the shock of the accident has worn off, and the unfairness of the situation has set in.
Carole King is often lumped in with easy listening pablum, and I guess I understand why. But Tapestry, King’s blockbuster album from 1971, isn’t easy listening. It goes down pretty easy, but not without some complications, most notably King’s voice, which is less polished than many of her colleagues on the radio at the time (critic Robert Christgau described it as free of “technical decorum”).
King’s voice, in fact, is what makes Tapestry so good. These songs are full of heartbreak, and King sounds like someone who is trying to sound sure of herself. It’s the trying that I find so endearing. That probably sounds patronizing, but I mean it as a compliment; it’s an unconventional voice, but it’s a perfect match for these excellent songs.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was first performed by the Shirelles in 1960, and it was the first big hit (among many) that King wrote with her future husband Gerry Goffin. Hearing the songwriter perform the song more than 10 years after it became a pop classic, drawing out its pathos and darkness and erasing its sheen, is fascinating. I know it’s heresy to say so, but I slightly prefer King’s version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” over the brilliant original.
King was only 18 years old when she and Goffin wrote “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, and the fact that it sounds so credible when sung by a 29-year-old King (not to mention countless others of all ages and backgrounds) is testament to its staying power.
The only moment in this song that I don’t like is when James Taylor, whose vocals are generally mixed low on the track, pops up in the bridge like a Muppet in a counting song. C’mon, James Taylor. Take it down a notch.