JAMES TAYLOR Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros.)

It’s a surprise to discover, on listening to it properly for the first time, how slender the album on which James Taylor’s reputation rests is. I don’t just mean in the obvious sense of playing time (all 32 minutes of it!), but also the fragility of its songwriting. Outside of compilation staples such as the title track and “Fire And Rain”, Taylor’s own compositions seem largely simplistic, repetitive and insubstantial things, occasionally lurching into lopsided blues parody (“Steamroller”, “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip On Me”) or revealing himself to be Laurel Canyon’s own Fotherington-Thomas (“Sunny Skies”, “Blossom”). The album’s nadir is the closing “Suite For 20G”: rather than being named after some kinda space-age anti-gravitational clothing, it takes its title from the one remaining song standing between JT and the $20,000 advance he was due on the album’s completion. The directionless, clichéd muddle resulted from Taylor lashing together a few unfinished works he had lying around – yes, just like “A Day In The Life”, except so, so not. This unprepossessing context makes “Fire And Rain” all the more remarkable. A sweet, sad song born from mental illness and suicide, its seriousness is at odds with the rest of the album, the purchase of which it justifies all on its own. It’s so heart-stoppingly brilliant it could be by American Music Club.

Musical merit notwithstanding this “180 gram high performance vinyl cut from the original analog master tapes for audiophile quality” reissue is a delight to behold. The sleeve is made from thick, pasted-over cardboard – no glued seams here! – and contains a fold-out lyric sheet, and the record labels are the same drab olive green as they would’ve been at the time of the album’s release. It’s like a little foot-square portal back to 1970 – even down to the absence of the familiar front cover text plugging “Fire And Rain” and “Country Road” - though I wonder whether even a mint first pressing would sound as lovely. Admittedly it’s difficult to bodge the reproduction of these uncomplicated arrangements, but even so this album sounds remarkably good, whether conveying the sense of a guitar string being physically plucked or suggesting the subtle cloud of reverberation around JT’s voice. The thunder of Russ Kunkel’s drums throughout “Fire And Rain” is jawdropping, and the surface noise is so low you can hear the tape hiss fade in and out between tracks. Subtle pleasures to some, admittedly, but more than enough to justify costing three times the price of the equivalent CD as far as I’m concerned.