They were all so young and beautiful, crooning songs of dark yearning and disillusionment.
It was the dawn of the ’70s. And in the aftermath of the Molotov cocktail that was the late 1960s, a collective of singer-songwriter troubadours emerged with tunes that unabashedly looked inward as they tried to make sense of the world around them.
Their songs became pop smashes, making the unassuming artists unlikely superstars. And while, to many, they epitomized the idea of earnestness and artistic integrity, away from the stage, several of them indulged in the excesses of fame — drugs and a string of torrid affairs.
James Taylor was one of the most successful artists of this endearing loose collective that included his former wife, Carly Simon, his friend and recent touring partner, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.
Taylor, who will perform Nov. 29 at the Consol Energy Center, Uptown, was the archetype of the sensitive singer-songwriter cliche, with his doe eyes and mellow acoustic-guitar melodies sung in a pensive tenor.
He and his peers found stardom during the commercial height of the LP era, back when albums engaged with a conceptual suite of songs, or a theme that connected the numbers. Those albums and the classic singles they spawned remain influential, perhaps more so today, given the dearth of emotionally transcendent songwriting in the mainstream.
They were songs that spoke frankly, and sometimes poetically, about the loss of innocence, the myth of romance and the inherent messiness of relationships — songs that have been rerecorded over the years by numerous others.
Revisionist culture vultures and wide-eyed interpreters lacking an understanding of lyrical nuance have often glossed over the darkness and uncomfortable truths rippling in the music of Taylor and his contemporaries. They also miss the humor.
As Taylor, now 66, comes to town to revisit the hits that made him an icon, let’s take a look at a few essential albums of that game-changing ’70s collective he unofficially led.
“Sweet Baby James” (1970), “JT” (1977)
Taylor’s artistic identity was cemented on “Sweet Baby James,” his sophomore album released when he was 22 years old. It’s his most celebrated effort, featuring the hits “Fire and Rain” and “Country Road.”
The album would later influence an array of singer-songwriters, from India.Arie to Garth Brooks.
The spare arrangements, colored by folk and blues elements, never get in the way of Taylor’s warm voice and unflinching lyrics.
Seven years later, he recorded his second-biggest-selling studio album, “JT,” which serves, in a way, as a slicker companion to “Sweet Baby James,” with introspective songs that delve into the stormy and sunny sides of love and growing up.
“No Secrets” (1972)
This is the album that made the daughter of a well-to-do book publisher a major pop star. And it remains Simon’s most solid set, featuring her signature smash “You’re So Vain,” and “The Right Thing to Do,” a rollicking Top 10 hit celebrating her relationship with Taylor.
“Tapestry” (1971), “Music” (1971)
Aside from maybe Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” no other album in the American pop canon is as celebrated as “Tapestry.” It remains a perennial favorite among fans and critics for its charm and unvarnished beauty.
The album’s love songs are refreshingly stripped of the sugary sentiment and coyness that marked the era-defining hits of the 1960s, many of which King wrote with her former husband, songwriter Gerry Goffin. And like all solidly written songs, the ones on “Tapestry” (“It’s Too Late,” “So Far Away”) have been reinterpreted in various genres.
“Music,” the underrated follow-up to “Tapestry,” is just as strong, with King folding in pronounced soul elements.
“Late for the Sky” (1974)
Browne got it right the third time, as the musical and lyrical elements that made his previous albums worthwhile coalesce smoothly on “Late for the Sky,” an assured, cohesive effort.
The album helped crystallize the breezy, yet substantive, singer-songwriter spirit of California in the early ’70s.
“Court and Spark” (1974), “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (1975), “Hejira” (1976)
The striking blond Canadian with a poet’s spirit made a splash in the early ’70s, becoming one of the most important voices of her generation, with such candid masterpieces as “Ladies of the Canyon” and “Blue.”
But the vibrancy, complexity and sophistication of Mitchell’s lyrics and compositional structures all blossomed on this trio of albums released in the middle of the decade.
With a sharp eye for colorful details and a novelist’s sense of plot and pacing, Mitchell crafts memorable tales of love as a prison (“The Hissing of Summer Lawns”), love as an addiction (“Help Me”), and self-love as a liberating force (“Black Crow”).
Rashod Ollison is a staff writer for the Virginian-Pilot.