What, you may ask, is James Taylor doing in a column called The Cutout Bin? Obviously Taylor has enjoyed a long career, scoring several best-selling albums and singles. The legendary performer continues to draw large crowds on his many tours, playing classics such as “Fire and Rain” and “You've Got A Friend” to adoring fans. Sadly, much of his more current work has been overshadowed by his older hits, even though he remains one of the few artists to still release quality work. Two underrated 90s albums exemplify his eternal creativity: New Moon Shine and Hourglass.
Released in 1991, New Moon Shine contains some of Taylor's best songwriting, including “The Frozen Man,” which he resurrected for his recent One Man Band tour. Inspired by a National Geographic article, the song chronicles a man whose body has been frozen, only to come alive again decades later. When Taylor describes, from the man's perspective, how much he misses his friends and family and is unsure about his true identity, it is truly heartbreaking. The track illustrates storytelling at its best, and Taylor's heartfelt yet simple delivery evokes deep emotion. “Shed A Little Light” honors Martin Luther King's struggles for civil rights — yes, this territory has been mined before, but the beautiful harmonies and upbeat tempo rescue the song from any cliches.
Although somewhat dated, “Slap Leather” features Taylor half-rapping about the media, pop culture, and news of the day. Although his outlook is cynical, its sly humor concerning topics like phone sex and “Big Mac Falafels” draw chuckles. “Copperline” and “(I've Got to) Stop Thinkin' 'Bout That” show Taylor's gift for writing solid pop singles. Finally, Taylor's superior guitar skills are showcased in “Like Everyone She Knows,” a beautiful track marked with gorgeous chord changes and intricate picking. Overall, New Moon Shine nicely balances politics with deft storytelling and old-fashioned romance.
Taylor continued his creative streak with 1997's Hourglass, a moving collection of world sounds mixed with deeply personal songwriting. “Enough to be on Your Way” takes a sobering look at death and family bonds, punctuated by Yo Yo Ma's soulful cello. “Line 'Em Up” (also performed on the One Man Band tour) was inspired by Richard Nixon's fall from grace. “Another Day,” a quiet yet powerful ballad, describes a stable relationship where the man finds comfort from his significant other; after experiencing a “hell of a night,” he comes and tells “Suzie” that he draws strength from her:
Just to be with you by my side
Just to have you near in my sight
Just to walk a while in this light
Just to know that life goes on
Thus the lyrics describe tranquil companionship instead of only passion.
Of course Taylor never neglects his upbeat pop roots, and doesn't disappoint with the optimistic “Little More Time with You,” featuring a great Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. He also explores Brazilian beats with songs like “Gaia,” “Ananas,” and “Jump Up Behind Me,” proving that Taylor can sing just about anything. Finally, he continues his tradition of covering classic 50s and 60s songs with “Walking My Baby Back Home,”with Taylor using a charming, subtly witty vocal. Overall Hourglass shows Taylor at his most versatile and introspective.
Critics often accuse Taylor of not producing groundbreaking work and never changing his sound. New Moon Shine and Hourglass prove that Taylor continues to experiment with his songwriting and enjoys dabbling in world sounds. Sure, “Sweet Baby James” and “Something in the Way She Moves” are mainstays in the Taylor catalog. Ignoring more recent works, particularly his 90s creative resurgence, prevents fans from experiencing Taylor's enduring artistry.