James Taylor: isn’t he supposed to be the antithesis of a songwriter like Elvis Costello? Isn’t that what we were once taught, those of us who grew up seeking alternatives to the hold-overs of AM radio’s “soft rock” rein — Taylor, the sanitized, mother-approved opposite of a dangerous, subversive character like Costello?
I’ve been guilty of thinking this way before, of championing something that skirts outside the mainstream’s straight-and-narrow merely to satisfy my own contrarian agendas. And yet, this isn’t a healthy way to think, nor a healthy way to absorb music (or the possibilities offered by any experience, for that matter). There is room in our lives for both the James Taylors and the Elvis Costellos of this world: this is a truth that should be self-evident, but is not, and so it is a truth that the fourth episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) makes ringingly clear.
This is probably my favorite episode of Spectacle so far — Taylor is a profound thinker and humble performer, a great imitator of George Jones (whose voice Taylor describes as “sorta like a singing fist”), and a quick assessor of contemporary American politics and life (he aptly equates Sarah Palin with Annie Oakley, adding, “she’s the American frontier”). Speaking of George Jones, Taylor and his band perform a killer cover of Jones’ “Why Baby Why”, the juicy Jones-ian pronunciations smoothed out by Taylor’s sweet delivery. And speaking speaking of the Jones-Taylor connection, Costello opens the show with a solo acoustic performance of Taylor’s excellent “Bartender’s Blues”, which Taylor wrote with Jones on the brain (Laura Cantrell provides the Emmylou-esque harmonies). It’s a whole master-and-student full-circle that opens up new appreciations of songs that you thought you knew.
Later, Taylor performs a few of his best-known hits, “Fire and Rain” and “Sweet Baby James”, and they suddenly seem heavier than I would have ever believed, the sadness at the core of the former smacking upside the lullaby of the latter. Taylor, who spends a good deal of the episode dealing with the true meanings of the dreaded “introspective” descriptor, gets in deep here — plumbing depths with surprising looseness.