Everything that's right and everything that's wrong about Hold Out, Jackson Browne's first studio album since The Pretender (1976), can be found in its climax: the spoken confession at the end of the last cut, "Hold On Hold Out." Eight minutes long, "Hold On Hold Out" is the LP's anthem, its farewell address and would-be summation. With Technicolor clarity, the drive of the drums, the zing of the string synthesizer and the shoulders-thrust-back momentum of the piano jump out at you — big and bright and basic. So the drama is real when the instruments drop back and Browne stops singing and starts speaking.
It's a measure of both the grandiosity and simplicity of Browne's intentions that this album comes down to his saying — without the aid of melody or harmony — "I love you." And it's a measure of Hold Out's failure that these words sound flat, forced, even selfish: a meaningful private act made embarrassing by its public expression. Also, the words are a letdown, since they follow the funniest, most heartbreakingly romantic line on the record. The singer is speaking directly to the woman he's been falling in love with throughout the LP. You can sense that he's awkwardly trying to breach the gulf between them. And when he hitches up his pants and says. "See — I always figured I was going to meet somebody here," you know that Los Angeles' coolest, smartest urban cowboy is just as vulnerable and ridiculous as you and I. Browne, a romantic to the end, makes such long-shot faith seem not only possible but necessary.
Hold Out is a trade-off of such moments. Duff lines war with taut ones, puffed-up commonplaces with perceptions: "Does it take a death to learn what a life is worth?" versus "She could have turned out to be almost anyone/Almost anyone — /With the possible exception/Of who I wanted her to be." Most of the time, Browne loses. Lyrically. Hold Out is probably the weakest record he's ever made — an album on which all of the big decisions are carefully considered, but many of the small ones backfire. What we have is a song cycle with scarcely a single tune that has the moral imagination, pop grace or writerly precision of Browne's best material. In the end, Hold Out is simply a set of moods that don't quite catch.
On paper, the LP makes sense, and you can almost imagine Browne's preproduction notes. A circle game, taking up where The Pretender left off but reversing the order. From antiro mantic break up to romantic renewal. Semiautobiographical About loss and fear, ties that bind and ties that bond. An exploration of the pull of work. stardom and bittersweet expectations. Images that recur from composition to composition, but songs that stand on their own. A core of players for every number. A consistent sound. An urban feel that accurately reflects the sidewalk hustle and freeway rush of Hollywood. Hints of neon and a touch of chrome.
So what went wrong? Of all things, the writing. Jackson Browne has never been as banal, sloppy, fake or pretentious as he is here. Hold Out forces us to be editors and fill its margins with questions. From "Disco Apocalypse": "People move into the sounds and sights/Like the moth is drawn into the lights/Like the tight rope walker into the heights." What is so self-destructive and death-defying about disco? What makes it apocalyptic? Please explain. From "Of Missing Persons," Browne's tune to Lowell George's daughter: "Your brothers are all older/And they'll take it in their stride/The world's a little colder/But manhood's on their side." What is being said here? That George's sons will take their father's death in stride? That George's daughter is forever condemned to grieve because she doesn't have manhood on her side? Please clarify. Then there's the mock literariness ("Reaching into the heart of the darkness"), the Dick-and-Jane sociology ("The folks are home playing Beat the Clock"), the Hallmark card from the Mount ("Hold a place for the human race"). Please avoid.
With the exception of the title track, there's hardly a song on Hold Out without one of these time bombs. And if more don't go off, it's because the music represents a real advance: Browne's concrete version of Los Angeles rock & roll. Unlike Jules Shear or Tonio K., two Hollywood singer/songwriters who've urbanized the city's sound through speed and roughness, Jackson Browne has made it slicker. But I don't mean this in a bad way.
There's not an acoustic guitar to be found. Even the curling, faraway cry of David Lindley's lap guitars — which, as much as anything, have characterized Browne's records — has nearly vanished. Except for the lifting intricacies of "Call It a Loan," Lindley's lines leap forward, unequivocal but not ear-catching. Most of Hold Out's high-powered gloss comes from Craig Doerge's and Bill Payne's keyboards, much of its satisfying whir from Bob Glaub's bass and Russ Kunkel's drums. Amazingly, Browne has taken many of the qualities that have made Los Angeles rock so reprehensible these last few years — its hauteur. its designer-priced sameness, its umbrella-drink intellectualism — and sandblasted them into a hard new sheen. And it works. "Disco Apocalypse" may or may not be an empty idea, but musically it moves like a bullet Jackson Browne may be a stranger on the "Boulevard," yet when Rosemary Butler's vocals whip around the corner in the choruses, the tune perks up.
Despite its rock & roll accomplishments, however, what's missing from Hold Out is much larger: humor, humility, detail, lightness of touch Browne has been Hollywood rock's moral conscience and intellectual spokesman for so long — and has performed his duties so completely — that it's probably taken something out of him. Hold Out has the feel of someone desperately trying to break through, to make a Big Statement: every line inflated with Meaning, each song Significant. When, in "Hold Out," the artist is offhand, it comes as such a surprise that your heart flies: "How we laughed when we first knew love Singing dum-de-lum-de-lie."
Still, I miss the Jackson Browne who felt free enough to say "I don't know what happens when people die" in "For a Dancer," which is surely preferable to the piling up of polemic sorrow in "Of Missing Persons." I miss the singer who spoke plainly in "These Days" (none of this "Talk about celestial bodies/And your angels on the wing" there). And most of all, I miss the man who could write a rock & roll number with the directness of "Running on Empty," and not weigh us down with the social science fiction of "Boulevard." Unfortunately, the old Jackson Browne can rarely be found on Hold Out. So we'll have to give the new one a chance.