THE ALBUM -- "Dad Loves His Work," James Taylor, Columbia (tC 370009).
James Taylor will never be confused with Ted Nugent, and for that we (and they) give thanks. But even in view of Taylor's well-established position as paradigm of singer/songwriter languor, his new release comes on like an attack of narcolepsy.
So soporific is "Dad Loves His Work" that its amazing the album can be sold over the counter. Like 1979's "Flag," the inner labels are color-coded to delineate Depressing Side and Less Depressing Side. In this case, a basic slate-gray would have plenty accurate.
Taylor is shown on the back cover in gogles and an apron, hefting a power saw. The likening of pop song construction to other, less glamourous lines of work is a device he relied on as early as "In the Pocket," with "Flag" the most convincing and complete example.
Though the new LP's title implies a continuation of the concept of rock-stardom-as-manual-labor, closer inspection reveals that Taylor's concern here is with another kind of backbreaking endeavor, that being the art of maritial maintenance.
And a dirty, dangerous job it is, too. One gets the squirmy feeling, along about the first cut, of having walked in on an unpleasant domestic scene, already far beyond the screaming and scratching stage and well into the lethal throes of the Silent Wait.
If Taylor's aim is to simulate the universal death rattle of male/female relationships, he achieves a remarkable approximation with "Hard Times." Holding it together ain't always easy An angry man, hungry woman They're driving each other crazy . . . I may be wrong for you baby Maybe I'm wrong But I love you just the same.
"Her Town Too," co-written by J.D. Souther and Waddy Wachtel, goes on to explore the social ramifications and ravelings of a break up: She gets the house and the garden He gets the boys in the band Some of them his friends Some of them her friends Some of them understand.
The sepia tones of nostalgia, the balance and contrast of Souther's harmony vocals, the fine-crafted framework of guild -- all conjure up a prototypical image of romantic relinquishment. What's missing from this picture is the conviction it takes to make such a decision.
And it's the lack of conviction, not the subject matter, that makes "Dad Loves His Work" so crushing. From "Hard Times" to "I Will Follow" to "Believe It Or Not" to "That Lonesome Road," Taylor exudes a grim determination to hold on to love; yet he does it without expressing the reasons that make the choice imparative -- or the fears that render its alternative unacceptable.
In short, "Dad" fails exactly where "Flag succeeded: Taylor's legendary knack for deflecting his introspection on his audience cuts to the bone when the topic is as catholic as the work ethic, but it barely requires a band aid with more personal themes like languishing love.
That the music is neither imaginative (as in "JT") nor well-paced (as in "Gorilla" and "In the Pocket") doesn't help, either. And then there is the numbing insistence on using the usual crowd of L.A. sessioneers, whose slick, soulless execution seems only to entrench Taylor in his solipsistic shell.
The most surprising cut on the album is "Sugar Trade." Co-written with Timothy Mayer and perennial dune drone Jimmy Buffett, it's a predictable but nicely-rendered song of sailors and the sea.
Within the context of the other tracks, the timeless struggle with and against the ocean becomes a metaphor for the struggles of love. Perhaps because of the safe distance this parallel provides, the tune is more effective than those preceding it.
Here, Taylor uses some of the appealing images that contitute his stock in trade; he paints scenes that reveal the general feeling but conceal the specific ones: It's the goddamned ocean that keeps them alive It will swallow you up, it will let you survive It will heal you and steal you and take you away Like a note in a bottle with nothing to say.
Only at this point in the album does he deal with love once-removed, thus making it easier to express emotions that seems otherwise incapable of betraying. As he did with "Millworker," Taylor intensifies the despair and futility of "Sugar Trade" through the very act of placing them in a mundane, unsentimental setting.
Exception notwithstanding, "Dad Loves His Work" is deeply disappointing.
Unwillingness to bare the soul would be deadly for singer/songwriters such as Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell; as it is, Taylor's infamous reticence turns this album into vinyl valium.
Let's hope he finds something else to be coy about, and soon.