It’s not often that a single album is sufficient to place a new performer among the first rank of recording artists. Jackson Browne’s long-awaited debut album chimes in its author with the resounding authority of an Astral Weeks, a Gasoline Alley, or an After the Gold Rush. Its awesome excellence causes one to wonder why, with Browne’s reputation as an important songwriter established as far back as 1968, this album was so long in coming. Perhaps Browne acquired performing abilities worthy of his writing skill only after much hard work. Whatever the reason, Jackson Browne (Asylum SD 5051) is more than worth the years it took to be hatched.
I mention the possibility that Browne has honed his performing skill mainly because of a vocal style that bears a certain resemblance to Van Morrison’s. Browne may well have used Morrison as a model, because that singer’s dynamic phrasing and syntax — with those mid-phrase halts, word-packing and spreading, and drawn-out syllables — are integral parts of Browne’s style, too. The Morrison influence is most audible in “Rock Me on the Water” and “Under the Falling Sky,” with their lilting, gospel-like movement (these two would make excellent singles) but it comes across in subtler ways in several other songs.
But what might have seemed uncomfortably derivative in other hands becomes merely a sound starting point for Jackson; his artistry takes the Morrison elements to a place completely his own. For one thing, Browne’s voice is uncolored except for a bluegrassnasality; it’s not a particularly powerful voice, either, but it’s quite flexible. That straight-faced, country – boy sound — somewhat akin to Clarence White’s in tone — lends his vocal style an endearing, innocent earnestness that enables Browne to deal with overtly romantic themes without ever coming across as self-conscious or precious.
The songs themselves reveal Browne as a classic romanticist; they’re possessed of that same earnest intensity found in his voice, and their prevailing moods are so strong that singers as diverse as Tom Rush, Johnny Darrell, Nico, and Clarence White can sing them without significantly altering their tone or substance. Browne’s songs, no matter who sings them, seem to have a life of their own. After hearing this LP, it’s clear to me that no one has done them nearly as well as Jackson himself, and it’s not likely that anyone will.
“Jamaica, Say You Will,” the opening track, is an exquisite love song, and it perfectly embodies Browne’s writing and performing approach. This narrative of the relationship between the singer and Jamaica, the daughter of a long-absent sailor, vividly confirms Richard Goldstein’s 1968 perception that “Jackson writes with rocky seacoasts in his head.”
A full-chorded grand piano gives the song a rolling, even motion and a certain austerity of mood. Browne plays his voice off the piano’s restrained tone, soaring up from his own basically understated vocal in mid-verse and chorus. This underplaying of mood lights Jackson’s simple but evocative images with a muted radiance that aurally captures the look of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
While the music sets the tone, Browne deftly tells the tale, his imagery charged with vivid suggestion. Jamaica and her lover share an idyllic, youthful romance in the high grass of a coastal village, but the singer feels a twinge of apprehension cut into his bliss: “Her father was a captain on the rolling seas,/She would stare across the water from the trees./The last time he was home, he held her on his knee/Told her next time they would sail together, just where they pleased….”
Inevitably, the time comes; the singer laments that one day they’d been hiding from the world together, and on the next, without warning, “They had brought her things down to the bay./What could I do?” And his callow plea in the first chorus to “Fill my empty hours” becomes a plea of teeth-gritting urgency in the third to “Fill my sails/And we will sail until our waters have run dry.” But there’s no chance of his fulfilling his dream, as he’s known all along.
Much of the dramatic force of “Jamaica” derives from its gorgeous choruses. Each chorus builds tension by offsetting its lyrical meter from the movement of the music, so that the first part of each line is packed tightly and the second part is stretched out, as here, in the second chorus:
Jamaica Sayyy yoou wi-lll
Help-me-find-a Wayyy tooo fi-lll
My-lifeless-sails-and Stayyy uhhhntil
My ships have found the sea.
Harmonies enter at the “Sayyy” section of each of the first three lines, accenting the rush of words that precedes them. All the tension built up by the struggle for balance between the lyrical and musical structures resolves itself gracefully in the even last line. Naturally, Browne’s single-minded delivery drives the tension to even greater heights, and the song soars. It’s as moving a love song as I’ve ever heard.
What’s astounding about this record is that there are a half dozen tracks of “Jamaica”-beauty (“Song for Adam” and “From Silver Lake” are especially affecting), and none of the ten songs is any less than brilliant and lovely. Each has the immediacy of a touch, due in part to Jackson’s first-person approach.
The music is as direct and fluid as the lyrical content. It’s arranged and played with appropriate restraint by a dozen Los Angeles session favorites, among them Sneeky Pete, Craig Doerge (his piano playing is particularly sensitive). Lee Sklar, and Russ Kunkel. David Crosby’s harmonies haven’t sounded this real since he left the Byrds. And although you’ll hear, aside from the standard acoustic guitar, piano, and bass, the sounds of electric guitar, organ, mouth harp, pedal steel, and viola, these instruments are subdued and spread carefully through the ten songs. No one gets in Jackson’s way it’s completely his album.
Jackson Browne’s sensibility is romantic in the best sense of the term: his songs are capable of generating a highly charged, compelling atmosphere throughout, and — just as important — of sustaining that pitch in the listener’s mind long after they’ve ended.
Don’t miss it.