Most of the ten songs here are in some way related to escape, or to the failures that necessitate it. But the Eagles’ point of view toward their material varies so wildly that it’s hard to believe even they take it seriously. “My Man,” Bernie Leadon’s gentle epitaph for a “very talented guy” (who seems to be Gram Parsons), is completely at odds with the jovial necrophilia of “James Dean,” a strong and (I hope) slightly facetious rocker that hands its subject a rather abrupt kiss-off (“You were too fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye”). “Already Gone,” which sounds like it’s supposed to sound like “Take It Easy,” is the most inconsistent number in the set, building a proud “victory song” out of successive cute digs at an abandoned girlfriend.
The Eagles’ California ethos (softly articulated in the album’s most affecting number, “The Best of My Love”) conveys their spirit of camaraderie which is more admirable than it is musically effective. The vocal work is shared throughout, sometimes even within the same song, and not always to the group’s advantage. But even though Glenn Frey’s singing best personifies the group’s overall spirit, Don Henley’s raw, strained sound is more interesting and less anonymous. “Ol’ ’55,” a Tom Waits number sung alternately by Frey and Henley, emphasizes their stylistic differences, but at the expense of a single, more personal approach. And while Bernie Leadon provides an interesting synthesis of Frey’s and Henley’s mannerisms on “My Man,” Randy Meisner probably shouldn’t be singing leads at all.
The band now includes three guitarists — Don Felder, who only appears on part of the album, is listed as a “late arrival” on the historic credits (they document for the first time which Eagle does what). They all play well, but there are just too many intrusive guitar parts here, too many solos that smack of gratuitous heaviness. Many of the arrangements seem to lose touch with the material somewhere in mid-song.
The title cut defines a vaguely Desperado-like stance (“Don’t you tell me ’bout your law and order”), but the Eagles aren’t thinking like outlaws any more. They’re thinking Top 40, a la their first album, and they now do it better than ever. If Desperado hadn’t shown a potential for bigger things, an album as competent and commercial as this one might not be disappointing.
On The Border is a tight and likable collection, with nine potential singles working in its favor and only one dud (“Midnight Flyer”) to weigh it down. It’s good enough to make up in high spirits what it lacks in purposefulness. And that might even be a fair trade if the Eagles would only decide they’ve already mastered this stuff, reign in their hit-making instincts and channel their energies into projects less easily within their grasp.