Theology pops up in unexpected places and it’s up to us to spot it. I often wonder if that’s how God prefers it.
In the last week it’s sneaked up on me in the new album from the utterly-brilliant James Taylor. Before This World is his first collection of new material since 2002 and, of course, is superb.
You get the sense that he’s so at home with his woodshed, quiet cup of coffee and simple trip into town. It’s about as far away from pop’s life in the fast lane as you could get. He sings in You and I Again about a wish that “I could slow the whole thing down”.
You were tending your own fire
We were biding our time
Both of us waiting for the moment when our backs would come together
You and I
I see how fierce You are
Never this world would drag us down
How serious You are
Standing on Holy Ground
And so Although I know we are only small
In the time We have here
Maybe We have it all
It’s not entirely an album of simple reflection. Far Afghanistan is a tough listen, about young Indiana troops facing the young Afghan soldiers in an age-long battle that goes back to Alexander the Great. He sings:
No matter what they tell you all soldiers talk to God
It’s a private conversation written in your blood
The enemy’s no different, badass holy wind
That crazy bastard talks to God and his God talks back to him
God pops up more than once, most memorably in the first single from the album, Montana, a song that will sit in the list of Taylor classics.
It’s both a eulogy to Montana and a reminder that sometimes it’s enough to celebrate what we have rather than strive for more.
I’m not smart enough for this life I’ve been living
[a] Little bit slow for the pace of the game
It’s not I’m ungrateful for all I’ve been given
But nevertheless just the same
The acceptance of what’s around us and the refusal to run beyond it to find the latest new thing is a golden thread spun through many of Taylor’s songs. It roots him in an America that believes better, even when the reality doesn’t always deliver it.
It’s a vision that looks up and sees God is the grandeur of where he is set and the variety of people he is set among.
Who can imagine the scale of the forces (that)
Pushed this old mountain range up in the sky
Tectonic creation erosion mutation
Something to pleasure God’s eye
The world is a wonder of lightning and thunder
The green of the ground as we fall from the sky
The old and new faces the tribes and the races
Thousands of places to try
Oooover the ocean from here
Oooover the mountains from there
While Taylor may sing of down home US of A, he has never had a narrow vision. His hope is always expansive, welcoming of The old and new faces the tribes and the races, Thousands of places to try. A powerful lyric for a world where it’s proving too tempting to sit at home, drink our own coffee and shut out everyone who is not like us.
Have guitar, will challenge. Taylor’s quiet manner and subtle style hide lyrics that carry messages we should listen to.
The album – his first in a decade and a half – went straight to the top of the Billboard album chart in the States so the man still has creative pull … and great depths.