In 1971, James Taylor appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and Joni Mitchell's "Blue" was being hailed as the album of the year. At that point, the two singer-songwriters (who each performed on the other's album that year) shared a confessional approach to lyrics and a gentle, sophisticated music that seemed likely to dominate the decade's pop music.
It didn't work out that way. The two artists soon moved in very different directions: Taylor became less of a confessional songwriter and more of an interpretive singer; Mitchell became less of a gentle folkie and more of an avant-garde experimentalist. Moreover, each move seems to have been just the right thing for the personality involved: Taylor would never have been convincing as an innovator, and Mitchell would have soured with frustration as a mainstream singer.
Now, 14 years later, these two veterans have harvested the fruits of their different paths. The 37-year-old Taylor's first album in four years, "That's Why I'm Here" (Columbia, FC 40052), is not only a glowing vocal showcase but contains his sharpest songwriting in years.
The 42-year-old Mitchell's first album in three years, "Dog Eat Dog" (Geffen, GHS 24074), successfully pushes her relentless experimentation into the synth-rock arena. The two albums also are a reunion of sorts; Taylor sings on two of Mitchell's songs, and she sings on one of his.
James Taylor once was hailed as a "new Dylan," but he turned out to be the new Tony Bennett -- that is, the most refined male vocalist of his generation. With a seeming minimum of effort, Taylor makes every syllable a warm, resonant moment of knowledge and affection that settles comfortably into an easygoing rhythm.
He has specialized in taking rock standards such as Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is" and Little Willie John's "Handy Man" and transforming them. Taylor does it again on his first single, a remake of Buddy Holly's "Everyday," and on Gene Pitney's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." He makes lust and murder sound like the most familiar, comfortable acts in the world.
While Side 2 of Taylor's album is devoted to these remakes and to witty odes for a limo driver and a pet pig, Side 1 is devoted to his songwriting. On the reflective, understated title tune, "That's Why I'm Here," Taylor comes to terms with his role in life: to lend a hand to old friends and to sing "Fire and Rain" for families out on the lawn at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.
An even better piece of writing is "Only a Dream in Rio," which begins with romantic images of Brazil ("tropical fruit" and a "wooden flute") but then pulls off the tourism mask to reveal the poverty and repression. Rather than settling for either reality, Taylor juggles them both: the jungle paradise reflected in Airto Moreira's bright percussion and the social powder keg reflected in Bill Payne's ominous synthesizer.
"Song for You Far Away" captures perfectly the resigned helplessness of heartbreak; by contrast, "Only One" is a contagiously optimistic love song. Taylor applies the same understated calm to his own songs that he does to the standards, and he is ably backed by the usual cast of studio pros.
If Taylor has perfected familiar strategies, Joni Mitchell is off in a new direction on "Dog Eat Dog." She, her husband Larry Klein and British whiz Thomas Dolby work with synthesizers (including Fairlight sound sampler) to construct high-tech environments for her new songs. With these three plus Mike Shipley producing, the machines don't yield the usual synth-dance beat but supply an industrial grit and muscle to Mitchell's usual rhythmic shifts, odd harmonies and literary lyrics.
The hard edge is appropriate, for this is the angriest, most political album of Mitchell's career. She reacts to the meanness and greed she perceives in the land not with knee-jerk pieties but with songs that poke into the psychology behind the current social climate. She argues that the climate is created by what she calls "The Three Great Stimulants": "artifice, brutality and innocence."
On "Dog Eat Dog," she describes North America as a "land of short attention spans," a "culture in decline" run by "snakebite evangelists and racketeers and bigwig financiers." These are not sing-along protest anthems, however; both the dense, ever-shifting music and the ironic, slippery lyrics are not aimed at inflaming emotions but at forcing listeners to rethink assumptions.
Nowhere is this clearer than in "Ethiopia," a song that asks the hard questions about the African famine that "Do They Know It's Christmas" and "We Are the World" never raised. As slowly drifting synthesizer drones and patient African rhythms anchor her majestic dirge, Mitchell draws unsettling connections between the famine and environmental destruction and agribusiness surpluses; she even mocks a "TV star with a PR smile" who exploits sympathy for the hungry.
Mitchell doesn't just attack easy right-wing targets. She aims at her old fans in "Shiny Toys." On this, the album's brightest, catchiest up-tempo rocker, she mocks the superficial hedonists of her generation who lose themselves in celebrity magazines, rock shows, new cars and days at the beach. She even mocks her own nicotine addiction with "Smokin' (Empty, Try Another)."
The album doesn't always work. The attack on evangelists (complete with a "sermon" by Rod Steiger) in "Tax Free" is overdone; throughout the album, the listener often misses Mitchell's old knack for melody.
The record does end on a triumphant note, though. "Lucky Girl" is a radiant jazz-rock love song for Klein. Over a bouncy melody, Mitchell lists all the men who have misused her, but then concludes with an utterly gorgeous declaration of love. This is then extended beyond words by Wayne Shorter's expansive sax solo.