James Taylor • Before This World

Concord/HDtracks
24-bit/96kHz download
2015

Music

Sound

by Rad Bennett | August 4, 2015

hether or not you like this album, the first studio recording by James Taylor in over ten years, will no doubt depend on your prior experience with this singer-songwriter. Taylor’s voice has survived in remarkably good shape, but his musical ideas are basically the same as they were thirty years ago. The style is acoustic folk. The themes of love, loss, and location, as well as anti-war sentiments, are about the same. Even so, this album sold 97,000 units when it was released, becoming Taylor’s first number-one album on the Billboard 200 chart.

Apparently, then, a lot of folks still like James Taylor and considered this release to be an event. I find the material comfortable in the best sense of the word. That’s an adjective you use when more of same still flirts with excellence. But the only moderately exciting new song is "Far Afghanistan," a bleak assessment of a country most of us know little about, shot through with a few moments of hope and beauty. Two songs of outright folk music also come across well -- "Before This World/Jolly Springtime" and "Wild Mountain Thyme." Of the rest, "Stretch of the Highway," clicks, an odd little traveling song praising General Motors, and so does "Eternal combustion." The rest are easily forgettable -- words and music.

The recording is pretty good but a little bothersome as well. If you listen to 1997’s Hourglass [Columbia CK67912] you have the basic sound -- warm and acoustic with a fair amount of reverb producing an hypnotic and cushy background from which salient vocal or instrumental passages emerge. The only difference with Before This World is that the background has become a little muddier and the interesting vocal and instrumental passages fewer and further between, and less capable of emerging from the mix.

HDtracks has cleaned up its act a lot regarding the provenance of digital recordings. Now, if a 24-bit/48kHz recording is converted up to 24-bit/96kHz, they will usually say so. Stevie Nicks’ 24 Karat Gold is a good example. But my research turns up that Before This World was actually recorded at 24 bits/96kHz, so no upconversion was necessary. That history said, I wonder if this recording is one that I should use to judge the higher-bit-rate format. It sounds smooth with clear and clean details, but so does Hourglass, an ALAC copy I made of the 16-bit/44.1kHz CD. More expensive HD formats can’t be sold with albums like this.

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