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Flag
James Taylor

Columbia 36058
Released: May 1979
Chart Peak: #10
Weeks Charted: 23
Certified Gold: 5/15/79

James TaylorThe James Taylor who gazes out from the gatefold of Flag is an emaciated, jaundiced Yankee eccentric glaring at us with cold, eagle-eyed skepticism. The picture is almost the negative of the movie-star-glamorous photo on the cover of JT, the album that marked Taylor's corporate switch from Warner Bros. to Columbia in 1978. But the aesthetic shift from last year's debonair to this year's dour isn't just a gimmick. Whereas the material and tone of JT suggested a similar mellowing of Taylor's personality, Flag's thorny songs and hard, tense arrangements bear witness to the stark and piercing artwork.

If JT presented the kind of urbane, sexy, humorous person that we'd all like to know, Flag peels away the glamour to expose the flinty marrow of a hostile stranger. None of the new cuts has the tantalizing wit of "Handy Man" or the delicious ironic glee of "Secret of Life." Instead, Flag offers the grim self-portrait of a chronically depressed man with a monkey on his back, as Taylor relentlessly accumulates correlatives to his own despair.

James Taylor - Flag
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
One of Flag's strategies is the disparagement, from the viewpoint of the common man, of the American ideals of freedom and work. Taylor obsessively goes all the way with this idea, reiterating in track after track that such freedom never really existed because life itself is a cruel imprisonment. The crux of the LP comes in four dramatic monologues, one of which, "Company Man," is obviously autobiographical. "Company Man" is Taylor's unsparing condemnation of the corporate rock & roll star system. "So if there's something you do well/ Something you're proud of/ Better to save some for yourself/ If that's allowed," he advises an up-and-coming musician.

The other three monologues also examine work, but find only boredom and exploitation. Taylor sees little difference between the life of a rock star -- even one as successful as himself -- and the more common forms of labor. (A dangerous notion, but he pulls it off.) They're all just jobs whose twin functions are to kill time and make someone else rich at one's own huge psychic expense. "Millworker," Flag's most eloquent song, portrays a widow looking back miserably on a bad marriage and ahead toward nothingness. The narrator of "Brother Trucker" is so hopped up on pills that he literally sees double. "I'm a driving fool/I make my own rules," he proclaims, knowing full well he's lying. Convicted of murder and rotting in an Alabama jail, the protagonist of "Sleep Come Free Me" is a prisoner of the state. Not even allowed the distraction of drudgery, he prays for unconsciousness.

Desolation and rage abound in the compositions that aren't concerned with work. In "I Will Not Lie for You," the artist administers a savage tongue-lashing to a close friend's wife for coming on to him. "Johnnie Comes Back" cryptically describes a man's desperate game of hide-and-seek with his own drug habit. "B.S.U.R." evokes the paranoia and duplicity that can poison a relationship when one of the parties is self-destructing. Finally, there's an icy remake of Taylor's decade-old "Rainy Day Man," perhaps rock's definitive ballad about clinical depression and addiction.

From the predominating darkness, Flag's lighter moments are thrown to us like crumbs -- and bitter ones at that. James Taylor's beautiful version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Up on the Roof" is also the saddest ever recorded. He reedy, throbbing twang transforms this big-city anthem of freedom and mystical escape into a ravaged recollection of better days. A churning, modal version of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" (with a disco edge to it) finds the singer keening the chorus in an eerie, Sylvester-like falsetto that turns wit into shrill sarcasm. In "Is That the Way You Look?," a throwaway doo-wop novelty, Taylor does all the backup vocals trompe l'oeil á la the Persuasions -- his most controversial use of R&B to date.

Though Flag probably won't be the hit that JT was, on its on uncompromising terms, it's every bit as impressive. Maybe more so. Taylor's new songs are exquisitely crafted, and their pain is so brilliantly understated that you can't dismiss the bleakness as mere self-pity, any more than you can dismiss Ingmar Bergman's darker musings as simple morbidity. What we've got here is as evocative an exploration of one strain of the American character -- the Puritan sensibility under extreme stress -- as pop music has yet offered.

Taylor's powerful and authentic vision has been masterfully delineated by producer Peter Asher, who keeps the focus on the singer's voice, which has never sounded better. With Bob Dylan in decline, James Taylor has risen to become the foremost vocal exponent of Appalachian folk and Southern blues classicism. No one else can make the plainest phrase ring with so much grit, tenderness and irony.

Flag is the aural equivalent of an Andrew Wyeth painting: austere, meticulous, its palette the color of cracked, dried mud. Like Wyeth's, Taylor's is a tormented and moralistic soul, drawn to the past, but -- in some crucial way -- cut off from its wellsprings. The result is art that expresses an inexhaustible patrician dolor.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 6-28-79.

Bonus Reviews!

Is it class or is it gall? And whichever it is, who'd have enough of it to let the whole front of his album jacket be the international distress "Oscar" flag for "man overboard"? James Taylor, that's who, he can get an album identified with nothing more than a little lettering on the spine. This seems to fit with the almost reverential deference he's shown in such pop-culture showplaces as Saturday Night Live. If you get the feeling he's a contender for grey-eminence status as soon as the Baby Boom generation qualifies to have one of those, you're not alone.

Taylor not only survived the Seventies but kept himself in reasonable demand, tending to write well in spurts. Now, in Flag, he takes some more large strides beyond JT; as a writer he gets outside himself and into some characters he has cast in interesting situations, and as a performer he manages a mix of tunes and vocals and instrumentals that is as natural sounding as it is instantly recognizable. The old crowd -- Sklar, Kortchmar, et al. -- is back, and welcome. If Taylor's style is to become an idiom of Americana, this is the band for the job. The album finds Taylor further refining the style and, in spite of those large strides, sliding back a bit here and there.

First the good news. Taylor doesn't sound like a man overboard but like a man who's been at work writing songs, and he has four or five here that will grab you. The narrator of "Johnnie Comes Back" (Johnnie is a girl) could be a pimp or a pusher: "Me, I'm just an evil demon/ I'm playing on her weakness." The hero of "I Will Not Lie for You" is agonizing over cuckolding his best friend. The hero of "Sleep Come Free Me" is in jail. And "Millworker" has a female protagonist who says, "Millwork ain't easy/ Millwork ain't hard/ Millwork ain't nothing/ But an awful boring job." There's probably nothing here that is autobiographical (aside from the indirect way that all writing is autobiographical), and not too many people besides Randy Newman and Tom T. Hall try this imaginative-writing stuff in the pop field. Flag works extremely well when Taylor is able to show empathy, as in "Millworker."

The backsliding comes when he doesn't find either the empathy ("Brother Trucker") or a rational new way to sing an old song ("Day Tripper"). And Carole King's "Up on the Roof" is of marginal use to most of us. The only thing that really bottoms out, though, is "Brother Trucker," which has hat fatal secondhand sound about the way it uses trucker clichés. "Is That the Way You Look" is a weird little number, too, although not necessarily unpleasant. It almost works as a satire of a type of song, but the lyrics are so monotonous they get in the way. Its sound almost bails it out; there is no lead instrument in the backing, just bass and drums and overdubbed vocals.

Whether you're holding out for Neil Young to be the first grey eminence of the Baby Boom or you're trying, like Taylor, to make your own individual adjustment to the Seventies, it's hard to resist a lot of Flag because of its stories. It understands, as did the TV program Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman before it, that you never outgrow your basic need for soap. The difference between the average soap opera and this is that Taylor tries to offer some insight beyondthe stories. Thus do we uncover the sly ways in which he keeps in touch with the times (which gobble up fancy soap in Roots-type presentations), and thus do we see why he's such a good candidate for G. E. status.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 8/79.

Despite the bland album graphics, Taylor's followup to his successful J.T. album, which produced "Handy Man," is a rather charming mix of pop songs, highlighted by Taylor's patented laidback style. While Taylor's vocals are nothing of any revelation, the backing instrumentation dresses the songs with musical muscle courtesy of Jackson Browne's band comprised of Waddy Wachtel on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, Danny Kortchmar on drums, Don Grolnick on keyboards along with guest background vocalists Graham Nash, Carly Simon and producer Asher. Among the more interesting covers are the Beatles' "Day Tripper" rendered in a semi-disco vein and Goffin/King's "Up On The Roof." There's also a Taylor original written and sung entirely in French. Best cuts: "Company Man," "Day Tripper," "Johnnie Come Back," "Rainy Day Man," "Up On The Roof."

- Billboard, 1979.

What's wrong with most of these songs is that Taylor is singing them. He can sing, sure -- the "Day Tripper" cover and "Is That the Way You Look" show off his amused, mildly funky self-involvement at its sharpest and sexiest. But too often the material reveals him at his sharpest and most small-minded. John Lennon might get away with "I Will Not Lie for You," but JT's whine undermines whatever honesty the sentiment may have. C+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

James Taylor followed his double-platinum Columbia Records label debut JT with this hodgepodge of a record. There are pointless covers of The Beatles' "Day Tripper" and the Drifters' "Up On The Roof" (#7 Adult Contemporary, #28 Pop), a remake of Taylor's own "Rainy Day Man," songs written for the failed Broadway musical "Working," and a few inconsequential new Taylor compositions. The usual brain trust (producer Peter Asher) and the usual backup team (Danny Kortchmar, Dan Grolnick, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel) were on board, but the cruise was a snooze. * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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