Jackson Browne (Asylum, 1972)
For Everyman (Asylum, 1973)
Late for the Sky (Asylum, 1974)
The Pretender (Asylum, 1976)
Running on Empty (Asylum, 1978)
Hold Out (Asylum, 1980)
Lawyers in Love (Asylum, 1983)
Lives in the Balance (Asylum, 1986)
World in Motion (Elektra, 1989)
I'm Alive (Elektra, 1993)
Looking East (Elektra, 1996)
The Naked Ride Home (Elektra, 2002)
The Very Best of Jackson Browne (Elektra, 2004)
Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 (Inside Recordings, 2005)
Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2 (Inside Recordings, 2008)
Time the Conqueror (Inside Recordings, 2008)
In the 1970s, Jackson Browne perfected the role of the dark, sensitive singer-songwriter, taking the autobiographical charge of Joni Mitchell's early transmissions and amping up the voltage. His philosophical slant endeared Browne to a generation of smart teenagers who'd read a bit and were asking Big Questions. Along with Mitchell, Browne served as a combination of bard, sex symbol, and intellectual mentor, influencing a generation of subsequent performers.
Browne's debut lays the groundwork for future heart-and-soul excavations. "Doctor My Eyes," an early hit single, communicates the subdued, subtle power of his half-spoken melodies, while "Rock Me on the Water" and "Song for Adam" foreshadow the free-ranging contemplation to come. For Everyman strikes a balance between the cool introspection of "I Thought I Was a Child" and "Sing My Song to Me" and the warm humor of "Ready or Not" and "Redneck Friend." David Lindley's loping slide guitar and arsenal of stringed instruments buoys Jackson's occasional slides into melancholy. "These Days," an FM-radio hit for Gregg Allman, stands as one of Browne's most intricately detailed emotional scenarios.
Late for the Sky strengthens and solidifies Browne's approach; it's the quintessential Browne album. The metaphorical complexity of "Fountain of Sorrow" and the clear-eyed poignancy of "For a Dancer" would be a tough act to follow; unsurprisingly, "The Fuse" and "Sleep's Dark & Silent Gate" (both from The Pretender) aren't quite as eloquent. They are effective, though; Browne's once-hesitant singing improves with each album. But even when his songwriting is sharp, the mellowing trend in his music dulls the impact. Browne eerily predicts the rise of the yuppie on The Pretender's title track, only to have his point undercut by a creeping string section.
Just when it seemed that mellow inevitably turned to mush, Browne made good on all the singer-songwriters' claims to confessional integrity. At a time when the overdub-enhanced live double album was a rock commonplace, Browne released a real concert document. Running on Empty collects new material, previously unrecorded cover versions, motel jams, loose ends, rough edges, mistakes, and unexpected moments of triumph. The album exudes intimacy, revealing the empathetic, flexible bond between Browne and his audience.
Hold Out returned to the popification program begun on The Pretender, though even the catchiest ruminations (the title track and "Hold On Hold Out") don't sink in over time like Browne's thoughtful hooks of old. Lawyers in Love marked the singer-songwriter's transition from the personal to the political. The title track is a cutting slice of social observation, but the remainder of the album is muddled. For the first time, Browne seems unsure of himself. Interestingly, both Browne and Mitchell started writing topical songs in the mid-Eighties. Browne stuck with it. The subsequent albums convey his passion and commitment, though the well-intentioned broadsides and liberation anthems never quite connect with the musical setting: tasteful, state-of-the-art L.A. studiocraft. Little Steven Van Zandt's "I Am a Patriot," from World in Motion, is the only truly memorable song on Browne's trilogy of protest albums.
On I'm Alive, Browne returned to his forte: the personal joy and agony of day-to-day human interaction. Here, he deals with the various stages of a failed relationship, from the thrill of attraction (the reggae-tinged "Everywhere I Go") to post-honeymoon-period worry (the gentle "Too Many Angels") and, ultimately, the grief of breaking up (the piano-based "Two of Me, Two of You"). Browne continued his renewed introspection on Looking East, to slightly lesser success. Looser, warmer, and more live sounding than Browne's other recent work, The Naked Ride Home takes on domestic mysteries (on the title track) and is passionately crafted and sung.
The politics came roaring back with Time The Conquerer, a savage indictment of the Bush adminstration. The criticism is typically direct, as on "The Drums of War": "Why is impeachment not on the table? / We better stop them while we are able." Browne does touch on other topics—love, the Sixties—and the album's sound is a good deal more subdued than its vitriolic lyrics, with Browne's longtime quintet providing uncluttered, expert folk-rock accompaniment. The Solo Acoustic volumes are decent live albums; between them, they span Browne's career. But for an even better overview of his catalogue, pick up the 32-song Very Best of, compiled by Browne himself.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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