In the early '70s, there was no need to distinguish the cowboys from the rockers, primarily because the cowboys were the rockers — longhaired desert poets with guitars and a moody, self-focused bent to their lyrics. In those days, artists like Jackson Browne and the Eagles redefined American rock.
On later albums such as Late for the Sky (1974), The Pretender (1976) and Running on Empty (1978), Browne became the heartbreak kid, a misunderstood male looking for a heroic love. More recently, he has focused his discontent on social wrongs on Lives in the Balance (1986) and World in Motion (1989), pushing romance aside. Those albums were commercial disappointments.
Whether the lovelorn turn of I'm Alive, Browne's first release in four years, is due to his very public breakup with Daryl Hannah doesn't matter: Browne has successfully managed to resurrect his persona of 20 years ago. I'm Alive shudders with the pain of someone who's been soundly dumped. And Browne has even gained a sense of gallows humor. Between despondent cries for reconciliation, the singer indulges in refreshingly silly self-deprecation. The faux anger of "My Problem Is You" throws a desperate giggle into the plea bargain ("I don't worry about the ozone layer anymore/Just let those rays come through/When I'm outside, I keep my clothes on/My problem is you").
Yet, as I'm Alive moves on, Browne spirals more deeply into his agony. "I'll Do Anything," "Too Many Angels" and "Take This Rain" vividly recall his early work. "Sky Blue and Black," shining with Browne's gentle piano and stream-of-consciousness regret, is one of his loveliest, saddest songs. Yet there is something relentless about Browne's pretty misery; the album evokes the same near-suicidal dread that made The Pretender so wonderful and so exhausting.
On a cheerier note, Common Threads: The Songs of the Eagles, an all-star, all-country cover album, celebrates the drawling kick and rumble that ran through the Eagles' music. Benefiting Don Henley's Walden Woods Project, Threads is a freewheeling ride through an era-defining band's greatest hits. Each song remains true to the original — harmonies, guitar licks and all. Travis Tritt's "Take It Easy" punches hard with banjo-plucking abandon. Tanya Tucker's Thelma and Louise-style cover of "Already Gone" transforms its male bravado into a feminist battle cry. "I Can't Tell You Why" — perhaps the Eagles' most gorgeous, chilling tune — gets a moving interpretation from Vince Gill.
The question lingers: What does a younger, angrier generation — raging to Dr. Dre and Nirvana — make of all this? But '70s nostalgia is on a roll, from Steely Dan to crochet, and, while Jackson Browne has had his ups and downs, the Eagles have had a lasting impact on both classic rock and contemporary country. Perhaps the easy, elegiac rhythms of these two albums will whisper above the din of the madding crowd.