Is James Taylor’s ‘One Man Dog’ his most misunderstood album?

OneManDogOne Man Dog was an album unique to James Taylor’s discography and probably his most polarizing. Some hail it as an eccentric masterpiece and others an album filled with unfinished sketches of songs. However you feel about it, there’s no doubt that it’s definitely one of his most interesting.

In the early ’70s, Taylor was a premier singer-songwriter and the face of the movement. He achieved super stardom with 1970’s Sweet Baby James, which included some of his most renowned classics, like the title track and the gripping tale of drug addiction, “Fire and Rain.” Unlike many other acts, Taylor didn’t attempt to follow up Sweet Baby James with similar work. The album’s predecessor, Mud Slide Slim, was a sly album of quiet confidence and musical breadth.

By late 1972 it was clear that Warner Brothers wanted more work from Taylor and he delivered. Taylor released One Man Dog in November 1972 to an anticipating audience, and by this point he had carved out an interesting niche for himself. Although he wad thought of as a “singer-songwriter,” he stayed clear of the pitfalls of the title and was canny enough to follow his muse with new sounds — not simply making variations of Sweet Baby James for the duration.

If anything, One Man Dog was detour from Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon, showing his growth as an artist. By this time, Taylor’s voice had become an even more expressive instrument, more sonorous and more confident. This album captures Taylor at a particular juncture; he was newly married to singer-songwriter Carly Simon, was a proven superstar, and he was also still battling his addiction to heroin.

Despite its unassuming nature, One Man Dog featured one of the strongest bands of the time, The Section, which featured Craig Doerge, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, and longtime Taylor collaborator, Danny Kortchmar. In fact, Kortchmar’s delicate  and melodic playing weaves all throughout the album and personifies it.

The first song ( the title track) had an amiable solitude that appeared throughout the whole effort. The next track, the smooth “Nobody But You,” tells of misfortunes in an almost matter-of-fact way, instead of self-pitying. Unlike many of his contemporaries of the time, Taylor’s talent was multi-faceted and wasn’t locked into a persona like Jackson Browne’s weariness, Gordon Lightfoot’s rigidity, or even Cat Stevens’s increasingly mercurial nature. In fact, Taylor’s willingness to experiment gave One Man Dog’s playful songs — “Whoa Don’t You Know,” “Fool For You,” and the almost gruesome “Chili Dog” — a gravity despite being deceptively slight. That said, Taylor worked the best within the lyrical confines of romance and introspection.

The album’s most conventional track, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” was the one song that traveled well beyond One Man Dog. The song was a Top 10 hit and was about as commercial as this album got. Not surprisingly, deeper messages were found in the album cuts and songs that never made the radio. For Taylor fans, deeper cuts like “Someone” and the particularly stunning and almost too astute “New Tune” (about ex-girlfriend Joni Mitchell) are the songs that made the album worthwhile.

If there’s anything to complain about One Man Dog, it does not tell Taylor’s familiar tales of the road, existential alienation, and drug abuse as eloquently as its predecessor Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon did. But sometimes words weren’t needed, as on “Instrumental,” which is one of the prettiest melodies that Taylor’s ever wrote.

For the most part, One Man Dog was too eccentric to be commercial. That’s certainly true of the album’s closing suite. The medley (especially “Hymn” and “Fanfare”) have a raw, eerie sound that expressed the issues Taylor was going through and perfect captured early ’70s America and the era’s production values. The song suite ranged from the disconcerting yet fun drug ode “Mescalito,” the wry and country-tinged “Dance,” and closed out with “Little David” and the short instrumental “Jig” that seemed to fuse pastiches of the album into one instrumental.

There was also a Quadrophonic version of One Man Dog that was released in 1973. Luckily for James Taylor fans, you could enjoy the album with or without the quad equipment. This edition of the album featured different vocal takes on a few of the songs, especially apparent on the title track and the last few songs.

One Man Dog went gold in 1973. Taylor followed it with 1974’s Walking Man — an album that also used New York studio players and strove for a sound far removed from Sweet Baby James. Although Taylor didn’t quite become the eccentric artist presented on One Man Dog, his more adventurous work — especially 1988’s Never Die Young — has more that a few echoes of One Man Dog’s charm.

Although this album wasn’t one of Taylor’s biggest hits, its quirky nature made One Man Dog a powerful statement piece that continues to be a fan favorite.

About Jason Elias 5 Articles
Jason Elias is a music journalist and pop culture historian who lives in Easton, Maryland. His work has appeared on SoulTrain.com, All Music Guide, Upscale, SoulMusic.com, and in Upscale magazine, among others. He also runs the blog Pop Culture Idiot where he talks about pop culture and other fun issues. He has too many records, cassettes, and 8-tracks and loves to talk about music.