Hard cases make bad law, lawyers like to say, and no rock & roll case is harder to pin down than Jackson Browne. For many listeners, Browne is the quintessential guilty pleasure, a navel-gazing singer/songwriter whose moony ruminations and hokey melodies ought to give anyone the giggles. But they don’t. When Browne has all his talents in register, his work is almost appallingly moving. Lawyers in Love, Browne’s seventh album, marks a significant change from the feckless hyperconfessionality of 1980’s Hold Out (“Anyway, I guess you wouldn’t know unless I told you … but I love you!”), a welcome widening of perspective that allows Browne to escape, once and for all, the L.A. albatross that has hung around his neck for the last eleven years. Even though Lawyers in Love does send Browne into uncharted waters — where he occasionally sounds a bit lost — it nevertheless is a more nervy, intelligent LP than its predecessor.
Browne’s desire to pluck his head out of his navel is evident right from the title cut. “I can’t keep up with what’s been going down,” he laments in the opening line, and the big surprise is not that he’s out of touch, but that he cares about being in touch in the first place; for all of Browne’s admirable work on behalf of the peace movement, his personal politics seem keyed toward some sort of postapocalyptic utopia (“Before the Deluge”). And in “Lawyers in Love,” God’s interplanetary travelers discover Americans “waiting for World War III,” shoveling down fast food in front of the television. All told, it’s an unusually whimsical lyric from a man not noted for his sense of humor. Instrumentally, “Lawyers in Love” is Browne’s headiest track to date: a solid keyboard-and-guitar attack flavored by a chanting falsetto figure, a church-organ swell, sha-la-la backup vocals, even an old-fashioned modulation out of the middle eight. Hey, does this guy want a hit single or what?
Plenty of people will choose to read the songs that follow “Lawyers in Love” as romans à clef about Browne’s troubled marriage, but to these ears, it seems as if he’s gone to some pains to broaden the scope of his art. “‘Cause you survive/Don’t mean you grow,” he notes in “On the Day,” and why couldn’t that refer as much to the moribund California soft-rock claque as to a relationship? “Open your eyes,” he implores. “Look out below.” The impassioned “Cut It Away” does sound like it could have fallen off of For Everyman or Late for the Sky — minus, of course, its Linn-drum backíng. What hurts more, Browne seems to ask in this track, the person who lets you down or the thing inside you that makes you love him or her? His falsetto yelps of “I love you” at the song’s end seem more an afterthought than a directed statement, a self-acknowledgement of inner feeling as opposed to the ostentatious declaration of “Hold On Hold Out.”
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From there, Browne plunges into new environments and finds new ways of looking at the world. In “Downtown,” he seems most dramatically out of place, like an upscale tourist misdirected to the wrong side of the tracks. He tries to take it in — ghetto blasters, rodents, the rest — but all he can manage is a chowder-headed cry of “It’s all music.” It sure as hell isn’t great music, though, especially with stolid guitarist Rick Vito tugging on his wah-wah bar for that “urban” feel. You’ve almost got to admire Browne for making himself look so dopey here: he knows he’s got little or no understanding of inner-city existence and isn’t afraid to admit it.
His eye is a lot keener on “Tender Is the Night,” an outstanding bit of songcraft with a gutbucket bottom nicely set off by Craig Doerge’s jaunty keyboard touches. Browne takes in the world of lovers with an appealing wistfulness: “Just outside, there are people laughing/Living lives we used to lead/Chasing down the love they need.” The perkiness of the arrangement — and Browne’s voice, as marvelously American as Ella Fitzgerald’s — saves statements like that from the slough of maudlin solipsism, and by the time he gets to “Knock on Any Door,” he’s dishing out some highly uncharacteristic advice: “Keep your heartaches to yourself.”
Browne seems to have saved all his worst traits for “Say It Isn’t True,” a wretched five minutes and twenty seconds of antinuke agitprop. There’s no quarrel here with the sentiments he’s expressing, but to gravely intone, “There always has been and always will be war,” over a “Kum BaYa”-like coo of “Say it isn’t true” — surely, you say to yourself, he can’t be that stupid.
Thank God that Browne closes the record with the rollicking “For a Rocker,” wherein he dispenses with all things weighty and wearisome (including, I guess, the body of a departed pal) and kicks out the jams a bit. This ain’t just taking it easy: this is righteous partying. “I got a shirt so unbelievably bright/I’m gonna dig it out and wear it tonight,” he whoops, and his inflection can’t help but slap a smile on your face.
“For a Rocker” may not be the dance tune it wants to be — if this were a Bruce Springsteen record, this would be the slow song and the others would be uptempo — but it ends Lawyers in Love on the right notes: irreverent, extroverted, unselfconsciously optimistic. This isn’t Jackson Browne’s best album, but it does rein in his excesses better than previous efforts and points in some interesting directions. And for all of you who want to know what’s really going on in his marriage, let’s face it: your personal life is at least as interesting as Jackson Browne’s. Why shouldn’t his album tell you something about it instead of something about him?