“You don’t know why, but you still try/For the world you wish to see,” Jackson Browne sings on “Standing in the Breach,” the title track to his 14th album of new material and his first in six years. It’s a characteristic sentiment, one that reaches back to the Seventies, when Browne distinguished himself as one of America’s most visionary and important songwriters. In now-classic songs like “For Everyman,” “Before the Deluge,” “Running on Empty” and “The Pretender,” Browne took a hard look at why the values of the Sixties seemed to die for so many people when that decade passed. Those values – freedom, compassion, generosity – remain vibrantly alive for him, and on this superb, inspiring album, he once again stands waiting for everyman: “The change the world needs now,” he sings, “is there, in everyone.”
What’s most compelling about Browne is that he understands how greed and destruction in the public world devastate our private lives, rendering love both more necessary and harder to sustain: “It’s hard to say which did more ill/Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill.” The 10 songs on Standing play like conversations between lovers trying to reassure each other of their commitment in a world that devalues human connection of any kind in favor of profit. “You think I’m wishing I was some other place,” he sings on “Yeah Yeah,” “but in fact I’m right here/With my shoulder to the wheel, baby/And my heart in the deal.”
Musically, Browne’s signature sound remains country-tinged folk rock, infused with the spare elegance of Protestant hymns. “Leaving Winslow,” whose title nods slyly to that famed “corner in Winslow, Arizona” that Browne immortalized with co-writer Glenn Frey in “Take It Easy,” propels forward on an infectious rockabilly beat, as does “You Know the Night,” set to lyrics by Woody Guthrie. The rocker “If I Could Be Anywhere,” featuring keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Jim Keltner as guests, beautifully fades out on a dreamlike melody that evokes the more-perfect world Browne believes we still can attain.
At 66, Browne has been an activist long enough to realize that his most firmly held ideals may never achieve fruition. But, like John Lennon, he’s enough of an artist to understand that imagining the world as it should be is the first step in bringing that world about. However, the next step – doing something – is even more important. “Which side are you on?” Browne asks, quoting the old union anthem. There’s only one answer as far as he’s concerned, and he makes an eloquent case for it on this album.