With the death knell tolling for classic rock, some of our most beloved dinosaurs may begin resorting to desperate and potentially embarrassing measures to seem hip. But not Jackson Browne, bless his heart. He even looks the same as he did 20 years ago: same modified pageboy hairdo, same soulful puppy-dog eyes that drive a certain type of girl crazy. And on his new album, Looking East, Browne delivers earnest, graceful roots pop that’s in keeping with the direction his music has been going since the 70s.
That’s not to say that Browne has blazed a narrow trail. He has shown himself to be equally adept at driving rockers and tender, folky ballads, and has tackled both confessional writing and social commentary. On his last LP, 1993’s I’m Alive, Browne looked predominantly inward; on Looking East, he shifts his focus back a bit to some of the troubles surrounding him. But however bummed out he gets, the music — much of which Browne wrote in collaboration with the members of his band — is warm and buoyant, and the arrangements are full of space and light.
The lyrics offer hope, too. Granted, the reggae-laced “It Is One” paints a pretty bleak picture of global violence and oppression. But on “Alive in the World,” Browne falls in sync with the lilting melody and enjoys the big roller-coaster ride “with all its heartbreak and its joy.” The title track is equally corny and endearing, offsetting warnings of hunger and discontent with upbeat guitar chords and a message about the power of positive thinking.
And, happily, Browne indulges us with a couple of silly love songs. “Baby How Long” benefits from a sinuous slide-guitar riff and backing vocals by Bonnie Raitt. And “I’m the Cat” is Browne at his peaceful, easy best; it’s a shimmering gem with a playful lyric and a tasty hook. Virtues like those never go out of style. But about that hair….