It seems appropriate that James Taylor's second album, which was released in February 1970 on Warner Brothers Records after his debut on the Beatles' Apple label, came out at the time of the Beatles' own breakup and in a period of post-sixties, post-Altamont exhaustion. Sweet Baby James is a lot of things, but it's not rock and roll. It features tinges of folk, country and gospel with understated, laid-back introspective songs that gave rise a new singer-songwriter movement that sought to put the social unrest of the early seventies aside in favor of personal expression. And no one in 1970 was better suited to the genre than Taylor, who had just come out of addiction to drugs and drink and was ready to exorcise his demons through soothing and re-assuring music.
The arrangements on Sweet Baby James emphasize the economy of Taylor's unassuming sound, from his own gentle guitar to the subtle playing of the backing musicians, who read like a who's who of West Coast light-pop sidemen - guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist (and future Eagle) Randy Meisner - and also, on piano, Carole King. (King's own whose own piano-based tunes would become friendly counterpoints to Taylor's guitar-based songs.) The title track sets the mood with its comforting slide guitar and the relaxed wanderlust of its lyrics (Taylor wrote it as a lullaby for his namesake newborn nephew), while the tightly executed "Country Road" and the sweet, mournful "Anywhere Like Heaven" imagines escape into a pastoral world where Taylor hopes to find peace. He sounds particularly confident in his hope for spiritual fulfillment as he seeks guidance in Jesus, as his hopeful, direct singing in the gospel-based "Lo and Behold" proves.
Such songs would sound self-righteous in the hands of others, but Taylor's honesty in "Fire and Rain," his account of heroin addiction in the form of a letter to a ladyfriend who committed suicide, and his self-questioning of the pain he had to go through to make it as a musician in "Sunny Skies" show just how sincere and unassuming his music is. And even with a sense of self-assurance, he still feels a need to ask for help from a lover, as he does in the lovely "Blossom." Former pop singer Peter Asher, who produced this album and had become Taylor's manager, knew how to get the right balance of spirit and pathos in Taylor's music without making him sound sanctimonious; the light-hearted touch is evident in Taylor's parodies of white blues, "Steamroller" and "Oh Baby, Don't You Loose Your Lip on Me," as well as in a cover of "Oh, Susanna" and in the vibrant pop of the three-part "Suite for 20G." Taylor was more or less homeless at the time he recorded Sweet Baby James, and the rootlessness and yearning for permanence in these songs come out vividly thanks to Asher's understated production. Sweet Baby James, coincidentally recorded just after the Rolling Stones's Altamont festival, is a statement from an artist who had to get away from a freewheeling lifestyle that was hurtling him to self-destruction; the fact that this album spoke to so many people in 1970 was a sign that a large number of listeners needed to get away from such a lifestyle as well.
No, Taylor's sound isn't rock and roll. But Sweet Baby James is a gratifying, warm LP that brought new possibilities to personal songwriting.
(James Taylor is 69 today.)