Having made a name for himself with steady appearances at L.A.'s legendary Troubadour nightclub, not to mention having had a song recorded by Nico and a relationship with Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne's long in the making debut album was highly anticipated. Self-titled but often called Saturate Before Using due to the album cover, Jackson Browne was indeed an impressive debut, though its stellar top 10 hit, "Doctor My Eyes" (with David Crosby on harmonies; hey, the kid was connected if nothing else) was somewhat misleading, as it's more fully fleshed out and flat out catchier (and more rocking, though it isn't exactly rocking, either) than any other song here. Still, by and large these are ten quality songs, it's just that musically they're rather stripped down, though many quality session musicians contribute, for example guitarist Albert Lee and drummer/conga player Russ Kunkel are at their best on the groovy, jam-based "Under The Falling Sky," one of the more memorable songs here. Album opener "Jamaica Say You Will" and penultimate track "Rock Me On The Water" sound the most like his buddies in The Eagles, while "A Child In These Hills" is arguably the album's second most easily embraceable and melodic song (dig its harmonica as well). Elsewhere, it gets pretty heavy going at times; "Song For Adam" may be a mournful ode to a deceased friend (albeit a friend that he "did not know well"), but it's definitely the type of song that you need to be in the mood for (it's a bummer). And maybe more than just an acoustic guitar and piano could've livened up "Something Fine" and "Looking Into You," respectively, though nice harmonies enhance the former song and some pedal steel guitar playing props up the latter a bit. Fortunately, songs such as "From Silver Lake" (more nice harmonies, this time from Russ' wife Leah Kunkel) and "My Opening Farewell" have a simple but majestic quality to them, in part because Browne's lyric writing was already extremely accomplished and seemingly wise beyond his years. Introspective, mature, and obviously heartfelt, these ten gentle, at times quite pretty songs could use a bit of musical seasoning at times, not to mention some excitement, plus Browne's somewhat deadpan, one-note vocals I've always felt ambivalent about. However, the guy could always write, and Jackson Browne announced the emergence of an almost fully-formed talent of great potential.
For Everyman (Asylum ’73) Rating: B+
Covers by Linda Ronstadt ("Rock Me On The Water") and Bonnie Raitt ("Under The Falling Sky") further increased his profile (he also co-wrote a couple of songs on The Eagles' Desperado album), and, after a brief bout with writer's block, Browne returned with For Everyman. Now, I used to think of Jackson Browne as a bland West Coast singer songwriter who was an inferior contemporary of James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell. I still feel that way to a degree (certainly about Simon and Mitchell if not Taylor), since Browne can be disappointingly plain musically. However, those who are willing to invest the time and effort to really immerse themselves within his songs will likely find that they’re well worth investigating, and that there’s usually more there than initially meets the eye. This is due to Browne’s striking lyrical imagery on lines like “I’ve spent my whole life running ‘round, chasing songs from town to town, thinking I’d be free so long as I never let love slow me down, so lonely and so wild until you turned and smiled.” And though this reflective batch of songs lacked a hit single along the lines of “Doctor My Eyes,” strong ballads such as “I Thought I Was A Child” and “These Days” (previously covered by Nico, Tom Rush, and Gregg Allman) smash any thoughts of a sophomore slump, especially when the latter ends with this memorable quip: “don't confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.” Elsewhere, Browne’s narrative skills shine on the autobiographical “Ready Or Not” (“and all I wanted was my freedom, and she told me that she understood, but I let her do some of my laundry, and she slipped a few meals in between, and the next thing I remember, she was all moved in, and I was buying her a washing machine”), and nice harmonies highlight the pretty, contemplative “Colors Of The Sun.” Finishing with a flourish, the strong "Sing My Songs To Me" perfectly segues into the title track, a quietly lush, majestic epic with interesting lyrics apparently written in answer to Crosby, Stllls & Nash's "Wooden Ships." Stellar new arrival David Lindley supplies an array of enticing textures from a variety of guitars and fiddles, greatly aiding Browne musically, and I also like Rockaday Johnny's (that's really Elton John) barrelhouse piano on the rare rocker "Red Neck Friend." Of course, I'm not nearly as fond of its silly hick chorus, and I also far prefer The Eagles version of “Take It Easy” (which they co-wrote and had a massive hit with) to the twangier version that kicks off this album. None of this album's songs were hits, and the truth is that even some of the better songs here can get bogged down by bland melodies. However, despite its flaws For Everyman was another very good album overall, and it further established Browne as an album oriented, rather than singles oriented, artist (it hit #43 on the Billboard charts, up 15 spots from Jackson Browne even without the benefit of a hit single). And though Browne isn’t a particularly exciting artist, on For Everyman he offers engaging wordplay, soothing music, and the highly professional accompaniment of L.A.’s finest session musicians (including appearances by Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell).
Late For The Sky (Asylum ’74) Rating: A
Jackson Browne’s best album, Late For The Sky doesn’t work with just any mood, but his marriage of thoughtful lyrics to soothing music works wonderfully well during melancholic times of introspective contemplation. In fact, though they’re both enjoyable, the two upbeat rockers here, “The Road And The Sky” and “Walking Slow,” both sound out of place, as this album's lofty reputation rests primarily with its plaintive ballads. The terrific title track (his best song, period) is intense and moody yet laid-back and evocative, with lyrical lead guitar from Lindley (I especially love his outro solo) and lyrics that linger (“looking hard into your eyes, there was nobody I’d ever known, such an empty surprise to feel so alone”), while “Fountain of Sorrow” is also one of his best songs, with lyrics that ironically prove that a picture can indeed be worth 1000 words, accompanied by a steady, slightly up tempo beat that anchors a memorable melody. Elsewhere, “Farther On” features gorgeously sad guitar from Lindley and more image-rich, poetic lyrics (“adrift on an ocean of loneliness, my dreams like nets were thrown, to catch the love that I’d heard of”), while “The Late Show” is most notable for fine harmony vocal help from The Eagles, more stellar support from Lindley, and haunting lyrics that echo the album’s central theme: “I thought of all the empty miles, and the years I’ve spent looking for your eyes.” Another highlight is “For A Dancer,” which movingly eulogizes friend Scott Runyon (“I must’ve always thought you’d be around, always keeping things real by playing the clown, now you’re nowhere to be found”), before “Before The Deluge” ends the album with an excellent apocalyptic epic, one whose warning about impending disaster amid cries of ecological restraint foreshadowed the political nature of his later albums. The decision to move into that more topical direction was dubious, for Browne’s greatest strength is in his ability to move people with personal problems that touch on universal emotions, and here he matches his excellent lyrics to the most beautiful and un-boring music of his career (again, with a major assist from not-so-secret-weapon Lindley and also Jai Winding, who adds atmospheric keyboards to several key tracks and helps provide the album with a highly spiritual ambiance). As a result, the eight long songs that comprised the classic Late For The Sky epitomized the laid-back West Coast sound of the early 1970s, as the album was as quietly elegant and evocative as the lovely picture that adorned its cover.
The Pretender (Asylum ’76) Rating: B+
Between albums Browne produced Warren Zevon’s self-titled album and coped with the tragic suicide of his wife; you might recall he had chronicled their less than ideal courtship on “Ready Or Not.” Needless to say, such a devastating event deeply affected Browne, and a couple of tearjerker songs here obviously deal directly with that relationship (“Here Come Those Tears Again,” co-written with his wife's mother, Nancy Farnsworth, and “Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate”). Now a widowed father, he embraces family values (“The Only Child”) and attempts to come to terms with his own difficult relationship with his father (the not-bad but over-stuffed “Daddy’s Tune”). Musically, this Jon Landau produced effort is his slickest sounding and most rock-oriented album yet (though it's still pretty mellow overall), and "The Fuse" immediately sets the albums more rocking tone. It's a very good if somewhat over-long groove-based effort, but I personally prefer "Your Bright Baby Blues," which has the classic L.A.-id back Jackson Browne sound and achieves a quietly epic quality, highlighted by Lowell George's superb guitar soloing. The moody keyboards of Bill Payne (also of Little Feat) also hit the spot, and keyboard embellishments are indeed prominent throughout the album, while the drums (played by various session aces) and Browne’s vocals have been moved up in the mix. Unfortunately, David Lindley’s role has been reduced (he only appears on two tracks), not that other hired gun session men (like George and Albert Lee again) weren’t capable of picking up the slack, and the album’s real problem is that musically the songs could be hookier and more varied (the Spanish-flavored "Linda Paloma" is the album's most atypical track but it's also the album's only real misfire). Still, “Here Come Those Tears Again” and “The Only Child,” the former surprisingly upbeat and rocking given its sad subject matter (p.s. that’s Bonnie Raitt on harmonies), the latter with a nice mid-tempo melody (aided by more fine harmonies and fiddle accompaniment), would both likely make my “best of Jackson Browne” playlist, while the epic title track, which cynically looks at the life of the working stiff, is justifiably famous and is easily among his very best songs (this one still sometimes makes the rounds on "classic rock radio"). On the whole, The Pretender was a flawed but admirably ambitious and consistent album with several standout songs ("The Fuse," "Your Bright Baby Eyes," "Here Come Those Tears Again," "The Only Child," and "The Pretender" in particular), plus the Landau association worked as it became his biggest commercial hit yet
Running On Empty (Asylum ’78) Rating: A-
Recorded mostly live on the road, in dressing rooms and in buses, the songs here are fittingly about the travails of life on the road. Although four of these songs are written by others (in addition to several co-writes), as with all of Jackson Browne's work the lyrics are still the primary highlight. These include vivid details about the seedier side of the rock n’ roll lifestyle (“coffee in the morning and cocaine afternoons” and “you take Sally and I’ll take Sue, there ain’t no difference between the two”) and the toll exacted by his chosen calling (“I could see the surprise and the hurt in your eyes, from behind each flashing city light”). But Browne also makes clear the reason why he goes on stage each night (“still high from the people up there and feeling no pain”), though, like the drugs that dominate his hedonistic lifestyle, the highs never last nearly long enough (“but the only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play”). Browne does a terrific job of detailing every facet of the rock n’ roll experience, right down to the roadies (“well I guess I might have known from the start she’d come for a star”) and even the aftermath of the performance (“I can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs”). Session stalwarts such as Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Danny Kortchmar, and longtime associate David Lindley provide the rougher than usual sound, and tracks such as the slow, mournful "The Road" and the folksy "Cocaine" (on which Browne adds his own lyrics to Danny O'Keefe's original tune) have an almost demo-like feel due to their sparse authenticity. The rocking title track chugs along nicely and is about as satisfying (lyrically and musically) a "life on the road" song as there is, while the bright, countrified pop of “You Love The Thunder” (notable for its female backing vocals) became a well-known album track and album highlight; both songs feature stellar guitar solos from Lindley, whose versatile playing (on lap steel guitar and fiddle) is again excellent. Browne even attempts some humor (never exactly a strength) on "Rosie," a bittersweet ode to masturbation, and though the road weariness that Browne writes about so eloquently gets the best of him here and there, as mundane melodies remain his biggest weakness, by and large the quality of these songs ise very high. Plus, its brilliant concept makes this ahead-of-its-time album (now such concept albums are commonplace) one of those thematically greater than the sum of its parts successes, and it has somer genuinely outstanding songs. In addition to "Running On Empty" and “You Love The Thunder,” the famous "Loud Out/Stay" medley provides a spectacularly epic finale, the former being a sad and lonely piano ballad that's quite moving and thematically ties together the rest of the album, the latter being a lively cover of an old Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs song that's highlighted by Lindley's showstopping falsetto vocal (Browne and Rosemary Butler also sing a stanza apiece). Again, this is another album I like and admire rather than love, but I can see why Running On Empty is the album that really made Browne a star, and in many ways it represented a career peak and provided a close to what is generally regarded as his "classic period." Though subsequent hits followed, "Boulevard" and "Somebody's Baby" being the best known, you could argue that Browne later became more known for his political activism than for his music.
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