In 1971, the great rock critic Lester Bangs famously denounced James' Taylor's music (in the essay, "James Taylor Marked for Death") as "I-Rock, because it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric," making Bangs want to push Taylor (and Elton John) off a cliff.
Rock historian Mark Ribowsky (Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul) takes a gentler approach to the singer-songwriter whose familiar songs such as "Fire and Rain" and "Carolina on My Mind" form the soundtrack of the lives of a generation of baby boomers who now hold wine and cheese parties at his concerts.
Drawing on new interviews with various figures in the music industry and on previously published interviews with Taylor and articles about him, Ribowsky artfully chronicles Taylor's life from a childhood alternating between Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Cape Cod; his early and enduring musical friendship and partnership with Danny Kortchmar; his heroin addiction and his time at McLean Hospital for depression; his affair of the heart with Joni Mitchell; his marriage to Carly Simon; and his time as the first American artist signed to Apple Records.
Ribowksy examines Taylor's music album-by-album from Mud Slide Slim—which some critics compared to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Joni Mitchell's Blue—to his 2015 Before This World, which was hailed as relaxed as Taylor's earlier albums but richer and riskier.
Although it is unfortunate that Taylor's own voice is missing here, Ribowksy nevertheless offers a rich and nuanced portrait of a musician who channeled his own struggles with addiction, loneliness and uncertainty into enduring ballads of the hopefulness that can emerge when we embrace our shortcomings.