(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)
Last thing I remember is the freezing cold
Water reaching up just to swallow me whole
Ice in the rigging and the howling wind
Shock to my body as we tumbled in
How about being frozen?
Inspired by the exhumation of the ice-preserved body of John Torrington, Taylor gave us the first person narrative of a 19th century sailor not merely exhumed, but revived, in “The Frozen Man,” off his 1991 album New Moon Shine. In other words, the man the New York Times referred to as the “foremost contemporary composer of what you might call American lullabies” here offers a gentle, folksy song about primitive accidental cryonics.
My brothers and the others are lost at sea
I alone am returned to tell thee
Hidden in ice for a century
To walk the world again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man
The “man out of time” scenario—whether a man from the past in our present, or a man from our present in the future—has at least a couple centuries of respected lineage, from Rip Van Winkle to Futurama. Better yet, it has an enormous TVTropes entry: behold, the Human Popsicle.
You can see why so many authors and creators are drawn to the idea—it’s such a direct way to draw parallels and contrasts between different eras (the way times have changed, as in Austin Powers, or the way things might be headed, as in Sleeper or Idiocracy). It can also defamiliarize parts of life the present audience takes for granted (see any of the multiple “caveman in the modern world” flicks—or, if the critics’ take on Encino Man is correct, don’t), and comes with a built-in element of fish-out-of-water comedy.
But in “The Frozen Man,” Taylor focuses on the pathos, not the humor, inherent in the protagonist’s situation. First comes the grim physical reality of resurrection, with shades of both The Six Million Dollar Man:
It took a lot of money to start my heart
To peg my leg and to buy my eye
The newspapers call me the state of the art
and of Frankenstein:
And the children, when they see me, cry.
But even more than the “unnaturalness” of his new life, the narrator laments what he’s left behind.
I thought it would be nice just to visit my grave
See what kind of tombstone I might have
I saw my wife and my daughter and it seemed so strange
Both of them dead and gone from extreme old age
Unlike time-travel via machine, a human popsicle’s journey is a one-way trip.
James Taylor is someone I encountered through my parents’ record collection; the CDs have been in the background of enough car trips and quiet mornings that I know most of the major songs, but rarely seek them out to listen to. “The Frozen Man” is one of the few that stuck with me despite never being a radio hit. What I appreciate in the song is both the narrative—this emotional story—and the narrative simplicity—it’s completely straightforward in both meaning and structure. No oblique metaphors, no complicated rhyme or rhythm, no tricks needed: the song stands on its own. Sometimes, that approach leads to predictable, boring songs, but Taylor has a knack for making them sound classic instead.
It’s not particularly surprising that Taylor’s deployment of the sci-fi trope in this one isn’t very “science-fictional” in purpose. We get no sense of future-shock, and no commentary on our time versus the narrator’s own. Instead, the focus is on the emotional toll of the situation: the man, having “[said] goodbye to life on earth,” who is dragged back into the blinding light of a world not his own and expected to be thankful for it. Taylor’s default mode is not analytical, but empathetic.
I think that fact is related to Taylor’s evident desire for his songs to comfort, whether in sympathy for trauma (“Fire and Rain”) or in offering a vision of contentment (“Carolina in my Mind” or “Mexico”). And I think that goal of comfort, and Taylor’s earnestness and sentimentality in achieving it, is part of the reason both that he was “uncool” for a while, and that now, as EW.com put it, “it [has become] cool for the younger set to like James Taylor again.” Yet it’s not just the younger set with a renewed appreciation—in March 2011, Taylor received the National Medal of Arts directly from Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. So why James Taylor, why now? Well, it’s not that irony is gone in the new millenium only that earnestness lives again, too.
It seems James Taylor’s musical credibility was never dead—merely frozen.
Joshua Starr is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.