For inwardly panoramic songwriting of an apocalyptic bent, Jackson Browne's second album is rivaled only by his first (the second one wins), and Jackson himself is rivaled by nobody. His work is a unique fusion of West Coast casualness and East Coast paranoia, easygoing slang and painstaking precision, child's-eye romanticizing and adult's-eye acceptance. He can expand explicit experience until it takes on the added dimension of an overview, or he can philosophize with such intimacy that every generality becomes a private truth. Either way, his songs hang suspended in an extraordinary twilight zone between reality and myth.
For Everyman further establishes Jackson as a purebred Seventies intelligence, though it also includes some of his precocious late Sixties material. He is the first major songwriter to have emerged with the knowledge that the battles Bob Dylan depicted a decade ago are either over or too ambiguous to be worth fighting any more. But unlike most older writers, he is not yet ready to retreat into merely mining the realm of private problems for subject matter. He has internalized the remains of those larger struggles and still dares to hope for solutions.
Nevertheless, he has progressed beyond the proselytizing stage, as the stunningly eloquent title cut carefully indicates. "For Everyman" is a more thoughtful, less impetuous reworking of "Rock Me on the Water"; both songs provide visions of the apocalypse, but this time the image is significantly altered "Rock Me" was a fiery youthful fantasy shot through with contempt ("Oh, people, look around you . . . "), dreams of escape ("While your walls are burnin', your towers are turnin'/I'm gonna leave you here, and try to get down to the sea somehow"), and nervous premonitions that escape might be just one more illusion ("Everyone must have some thought — That's gonna pull them through somehow").
"For Everyman" presents the crisis in gentler terms ("Everybody I talk to is ready to leave. With the light of the morning . . . " and offers an impassioned disc aner of special wisdom ("I'm not trying to tell you that I've seen the plan/Turn and walk away if you think I am"). Most notably, the renegade spirit who once dreamed of being bathed by "the sisters of the sun" while everything around him went up in flames is now ready to be left behind on the eve of the exodus — "holding sand," weighing "all my fine dreams, well thought-out schemes to gain the Motherland," and realizing that this time patience may make more sense than flight.
The daydreamer who waits to discover in himself the essence of "Everyman" is curiously suspended in time. He sits just shy of maturity, and will not progress until the object of his search takes clearer shape. Yet his childhood is over, however much he may long for "that place in the sun/Where a sweet child is still dancing." Jackson himself seems equally divided between teacher and searcher, mock-adult and mock-child, and one of his finest songs toys with the irony of his trying to play both roles at once.
In his best rocker, "Ready Or Not," he assumes one guise after another; the song sounds like the album's most sardonic fantasy, though it's actually the closest he comes to detailing a true story. His girl is pregnant, and he narrates the tale most comfortably by playing naive: "Someone's gonna have to explain it to me. I don't know what it means." He met the mother-to-be in a bar, "doing my very best Bogart," affecting sophistication. But after an initial show of bravado he's suddenly helpless again, posing (as in "Jamaica Say You Will") as passive, irresponsible, a child: "Next thing I remember she was all moved in, and I was buying her a washing machine."
Even when he asks the song's key question, the innocence is a sham: "Take a look in my eyes and tell me, brother/If I look like I'm ready . . .?" Why is he asking? The "not" of the title becomes all the more emphatic for remaining unspoken, despite the song's somewhat forced happy ending. (When Jackson performs it in concert, he turns the "rock & roll bad man" of the last line into a "rock & roll asshole," seemingly as uncomfortable with his tough-guy role as he is with any of the others.)
"Ready Or Not"'s final resolution rings a little false because it disrupts the pattern of descent that figures into Jackson's other songs. Most of his melodies build up their energy at the start of each line, wear down by line's end, then regroup and try again, once he's caught his breath. His lyrics often follow a similar scheme, starting off with something reasonably definite and then floating off into troublesome ambiguities.
"The Times You've Come," the album's sweetly erotic heartbreaker, takes the pattern of descent even further, exploring it on both spiritual and sexual levels. The title verb takes on progressively more sexual meaning, building up to a wonderfully evocative chorus (sung with Bonnie Raitt), then trailing off into post-orgasmic reverie. Meanwhile, the song begins with a relatively matter-of-fact assessment of the risks entailed in a relationship ("we've lost as much as we have won"), then falls further and further away from the concrete.
The final verse offers up a sense of sexual security, pauses, and then proceeds to undermine the calm with an ominous note to which the spirit has descended while the body was preoccupied: "Now we're lying here, so safe in the ruins of our pleasure/Laughter marks the place where we have fallen/And our lives are near, so it wouldn't occur to us to wonder/Is this the past or the future that is calling?"
For all the pessimism those lines imply, For Everyman also develops a faith in the writer's own ability to check his fall. Although the title cut rejects relatively traditional means of uplift ("that strong but gentle Father's hand"), in "Our Lady of the Well" he creates his own secular sacrament, once again placing faith in the ritual and restorative powers of water, which lent such mystical resonance to his last album. Back of the bus, Bob Heinlein.
Despite themes that bind many of its songs together, For Everyman is essentially a collection rather than an album, most of the songs are so complete that they resist Jackson's attempts to run them together (although "Sing My Songs to Me" is an exception, a longish fragment that serves to introduce the daydream spirit of the title cut).
So not everything fits smoothly, although even the jarring moments work in a positive way. The early songs, for instance, serve as fascinating keys to why Jackson — who was good to begin with — has gotten so much better. "These Days" is an elegantly composed exercise in sulky defensiveness, "Colors of the Sun" an oversimplified, childish indictment. Each is too single-minded to measure up to his current level of complexity, but their presence underscores the strength of his mature synthesis by demonstrating the emotional purity of its components.
"Take It Easy," the one song here that is not entirely Jackson's own — it was Glen Frey, of the Eagles, who was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona — is the only cut whose melody actually outshines its lyrics. Jackson can usually turn street talk around to his own advantage, restoring cliches to their original meanings and arriving at an amazingly loose form of expression. (Sometimes he makes up phrases so natural they sound like street cliches the first time you hear them.) But the glibness gets out of hand in parts of "Take It Easy," and even more so in "Redneck Friend," which sounds like too deliberate an attempt to create a single by someone whose art, even at its most casual, remains too complex for strictly AM audiences. Still, "Redneck Friend" inadvertently offers up a line that's a concise, albeit conservative, estimation of the whole album's merits: "Eleven on a scale of ten."
Jackson's musicianship still lags behind his extraordinary abilities as a poet. Although his melodies blend beautifully with the mood and cadence of his lyrics, both tunes and arrangements seem shaped around the words. But the best arrangements here are effective on a startlingly deep level. "For Everyman" begins and ends with a low rumble from Russ Kunkel, then bursts out into a high-spirited release that mirrors the spirit of the song's resolution, simultaneously joyful and cautious. "Colors of the Sun" has an eerie, dirge-like quality that creates just enough tension to offset the song's more grandiose moments.
Even the more conventional arrangements work wonderfully well, with most of the spark coming from David Lindley, the guitar/fiddle jack-of-all-strings who also functions as Jackson's house wizard. The album has no official producer (Jackson thinks that's an unnecessary function, says the whole thing just "trickled out"), but most of it sounds like a brilliant, if understated, composite of the author's fluid downward progressions and Lindley's euphoric whimsy.
His singing has greatly improved since the last album, showing off a new expressiveness in his more soulful moments (particularly "These Times You've Come") and hitting the high notes with much more confidence and energy than before. He still doesn't write for his own voice, though; either that, or he sometimes can't play (especially piano) in whatever key he would sing best in. He often couples descending verses with choruses that shoot upward, and while the split evokes both a waking-dreaming polarity and an attempt to check downward drifting, it also forces him into the sort of low notes he can only mumble.
But every last note here, singable or otherwise, has a special resonance. Jackson's concerns, even more than his
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