Album by Taylor had long, long road

Family life, touring, lyrics' theft stalled singer's new release

August 10, 2002|By Eric R. Danton | Eric R. Danton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Making his new album October Road took longer than James Taylor had intended.

It's not as if Taylor has been idle since recording Hourglass, his Grammy-winning 1997 release. He's just had plenty to keep him busy.

"There were a lot of other things going on, a lot of life happening," Taylor says by phone from his Massachusetts home.

Indeed, the 54-year-old singer got married for the third time in February 2001 and later became the proud father of twin boys. He also spent time touring and released a greatest-hits album. Then, just as the October Road sessions were starting, he experienced a songwriter's worst nightmare: A burglar stole a notebook full of lyrics and ideas from Taylor's New York City hotel room.

"It's hard to know what was lost - that's why you keep a notebook, to write things down in. But it was probably three years' worth of notes," he says. "Some ... were finished lyrics."

Taylor eventually wrote enough lyrics for the 10 original songs on October Road, which also includes two covers. The result, available Tuesday, is vintage Taylor - bittersweet, semi-autobiographical tunes centered on his understated guitar playing and distinctive voice.

Taylor's personal life has long served as fodder for his songs - for example, he wrote "Fire and Rain" about the suicide of a friend. Some subject matter on October Road is a little more cheerful: "Caroline I See You" is about his wife, and "On the 4th of July" wistfully recounts the delirious feelings sparked by a long-ago first love. Musically, the songs variously contain elements of jazz, bossa nova and ragtime, but they are all unmistakably James Taylor.

"My feeling is, I write from very different points of view and have many sources for where I'm coming from, but the fact that it all goes through my guitar style, which is pretty narrow, and my vocal sensibilities, kind of ties it all together and gives it a similarity," he says.

True enough. But October Road evokes vintage Taylor for another reason, too - the singer reunited with producer Russ Titelman, who produced such classic Taylor songs as "Mexico," "A Junkie's Lament" and "Shower the People." It was the first time since the '70s that the two had worked together.

Titelman has described his role on October Road as that of an adviser, offering suggestions and counsel while the singer tried out different musical ideas.

Guitarist Michael Landau also contributed to October Road, but Taylor's own playing is more prominent on the album than the singer is used to.

"It's a very guitar-centric album. We cut things with Steve Gadd on drums, Jimmy Johnson on bass and myself on guitar, and we kind of kept that at the core. That's very unusual for me. Usually I'm taking it to a piano player," Taylor says.

Also unusual for Taylor is the bent of the song "Belfast to Boston," which is about as close as he has come to political commentary in his music.

"It's a song about how difficult it is to stop hating. It's one of the central things, one of the problems on the earth," he says. "The song started as a poem about an arms cache in the Balkans. The thought from which it came was as much about Bosnia or Herzegovina, Kosovo, as it was about Ireland. But it could have easily been Afghanistan or Rwanda."

Eric R. Danton is a music critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing paper.

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