I bought this album in early September of 2002, shortly after its release and just one year after large-scale terrorism single-handedly imploded the United States with not only the magnitude of its evil destruction, but also by the debacle and needless disfigurement that would become a series of decade-long wars in the Middle East. And like everybody else in the country seemed to be in those days, I was in heavy introspection and reinvention mode. Thank God for James Taylor. I was ready for a diversion and for something hopeful, and after spending my 20’s in the wonderful town where I went to college I decided to take a job in a different location. And while a new work opportunity made me hopeful for what might lie ahead, the unfamiliar territory made me reflective and sentimental. This tender album served as my travel companion as I said “goodbye” to DeKalb, Illinois and made my new home in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Lyrically wistful and nostalgic, on October Road, Taylor sings about high school crushes, first kisses, football games, and the sights, sounds and smells of the months between the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice. In fact, songs on the album reference the entire second half of the calendar year: July through December. “On The 4th Of July,” “September Grass,” “October Road,” “Caroline I See You,” and even the seemingly out-of-place, but somehow-still-works cover of the holiday classic, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The album suggests the second half of the year as a time to wonder and rejoice, versus the hectic, hustle-and-bustle of the first two seasons. October Road reminds me of one of the best periods of my own life: the first year of being married to my partner. The album was the soundtrack to so many Chicago-land road trips together as Kristina and I navigated a new geographic region, weekend errands and groceries, carefree apartment living, and generally getting better acquainted. I treasure those days.
While there are numerous stand-out tracks on this album (i.e., the aforementioned, “September Grass” and the uber-mellow, grilled cheese and hot chocolate, one-two punch of “Caroline I See You” and “Baby Buffalo”), the songs on October Road are also of a piece, conjuring autumn and winter imagery: colored leaves on the ground, family and good friends, crisp, November air, and the smell of bonfires, hayrides, and pumpkin pie. Taylor’s lyrics on this album are road-worn and familiar, cozy and comforting. In fact, October Road reads like the third and fourth season travelogue of a man who has finally achieved a certain level of satisfaction and contentment with his life. And if my James Taylor history is correct, this serenity has been hard-won.
Most folks over a certain age know about James Taylor’s “soft rocking, hard living” early days, as one of the principle auteurs of the singer/songwriter genre (along with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Carly Simon, Bob Dylan, etc.), he created classic 1970’s hits, like “Fire and Rain,” “Handy Man,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Shower The People,” and his only number one, the 1971 Carole King-penned, “You’ve Got A Friend.” James Taylor has endured mental illness, rock stardom, drug abuse, and the fleeting trends of pop music, which tend to favor the tastes of 13-18 year-olds. Following suit, Taylor started to lose traction on the pop singles charts in the early 1980’s, as MTV, with it’s neon lights, hairspray, and synthesizers, effectively killed the radio star. The 80’s and 90’s passed quietly for Taylor, who released a sublime album every five years or so to his faithful followers, toured to support his new songs, and otherwise grew comfortable in his role as elder statesman of rock music. And we fans keep coming back for more, most recently on the sold out “Troubadours” tour with the equally legendary, Carole King. David Crosby has said that the debut album of a singer-songwriter represents 10 years of the musician’s work, but the second album, often written between gigs while promoting the first release, that’s where you can tell if an artist is any good. October Road is Taylor’s 15th album. Still good. Very good, indeed.