The next time you're tempted to forget that the years are rushing by, focus your reading glasses on this: James Taylor is 37, and Joni Mitchell is 42. Doesn't seem possible, does it? Back around 1970, that era of the long-haired and deep eyed, the young Taylor and Mitchell emerged as the best of the "singer-songwriters" - pop musicians whose main text was adolescence. Spare and confessional, their music mooned and sulked. But it proved sturdy: there have been few better statements of romantic self-obsession than Mitchell's "The Last Time I Saw Richard" or sharper studies of a young man's grief than Taylor's "Fire and Rain."
In the years since, their recording careers have been uneven. After reaching a critical and commercial high point in 1974 with "Court and Spark," Mitchell made an unsatisfying foray into jazz toward the decade's end. Taylor never really got back on track after "Gorilla" in 1975, drawing as much attention for his marriage to (and eventual divorce from) Carly Simon as for his music. Now, after several years out of the recording studio, both have released new albums. Taylor's "That's Why I'm Here" and Mitchell's "Dog Eat Dog" point up how, and how not, to grow up in pop music.
'FIERY NEEDS': First the bad news: Joni Mitchell has made a virtually clean break with her past. Although her odd, elliptical lyrics sound familiar ("Elusive dreams and vague desires/Fanned to fiery needs by sexy boys/In flaming TV fires"*), much has changed. "There was a lot of adjustment to be made to the music world," Mitchell says of her first record since "Wild Things Run Fast" in 1982. "Because of video, a lot of it is geared to a very young audience." Produced in part by British synthesizer whiz Thomas Dolby, "Dog Eat Dog" whirs and clanks with all the latest audio effects: the sound of a cigarette machine in "Smokin' (Empty, Try Another)," the recurrent beat of ambient street noise in "The Three Great Stimulants." Mitchell calls these bursts of sound "collaging...a chance for me to be symphonic." Most often, though, they are simply intrusive - aural flash for its own sake. More annoying still is the use of human recitations - the voice that smugly drones "I love my Porsche" in the background of "Shiny Toys." Rod Steiger's ranting portrayal of a right-wing TV preacher in "Tax Free."
One wonders why Mitchell wasn't content to let the music do the talking. Perhaps there was a contest of wills among the singer and her three coproducers (Dolby, Mike Shipley and her husband of three years, bassist Larry Klein). Mitchell admits that she wasn't comfortable giving up so much control. "It was a difficult way to work," she says. "I started out singing with just voice and guitar. But I don't think I lost anything of myself on this record." Or maybe it was the lyric weight of her own material. Once known for airy laments on love gone wrong, Mitchell is now tackling big business, the religious right and African famine. "It's the normal outcome in the development of an adult," she says. "I feel mated now. All those looking-for-love, what-went-wrong songs are kind of out of the way."
The same move away from songs about heartbreak marks the new James Taylor, although his record is much less hamfisted about it. Reported to be happily involved with actress Kathryn Walker and free of the drug and alcohol habit that dogged him through much of his career - his "present addiction," he says, is aerobic exercise - Taylor seems fit and relaxed, and his new album reflects it. "I spent a lot of time with a feeling of negative faith," Taylor says, "an assumption that the world had a nasty surprise just round each corner. But I'm comfortable now. I don't have any investment any longer in things turning out badly." The title song is a bemused meditation on Taylor's comfort in the here and now: "[People] pay good money to hear fire and rain/Again and again and again...I break into a grin from ear to ear/And suddenly it's perfectly clear/That's why I'm here."**
Throughout the record, Taylor sounds very much like a man at peace. "Only A Dream in Rio," one of the strongest songs he has written in a decade, celebrates a triumphant concert trip to Brazil earlier this year - a trip, Taylor says, that "freed up a lot of things" and gave him the confidence to complete his first new record in four years. "Only One" and "Song For You Far Away" are paeans to the redemptive power of romantic love, and they are lovely. So is Taylor's voice, which continues to be an instrument of astonishing beauty. The album boasts another in Taylor's long string of choice remakes ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") and a weird, sweet tribute to Mona - "a pig who tragically died of rat poisoning before I got the chance to kill her." The one worry is that Taylor's output of new material seems to be slowing; there are only six new original songs on the album. "The writing gets harder and harder," he admits. "When you get a little further along in a career there are a lot of things competing for time."
Maybe that's the price of adulthood. But even if they are grown-ups, Taylor and Mitchell feel like old friends, and it's good to have them back. Too bad it's a mixed package. Mitchell surely deserves credit for widening her musical horizons; it's a shame that her new sound rings false to the ear. Personal stability needn't dull one's musical edge; Taylor proves that. He may not be "Sweet Baby James" anymore - but, he says with calm assurance, sounding like a man who is slowing down at last, "I'm reasonably happy with the ticket I've written myself."