Like most performers who transcend their genre, Jackson Browne often seems more a symbol than an artist. Singer songwriter fans find in him the fulfillment of the style’s promise: Browne’s songs really do merge poetic vision and rock. But there are also those (like my friend who suggested that this album’s proper title is The Pretentious) who find the genre symptomatic of all of rock’s current weaknesses. Browne is the epitome of everything they find disagreeable, both lyrically and musically.
It is odd that Browne is surrounded by such certainty of opinion, for ambivalence is the hallmark of his style. He has managed to make confusion an advantage, partly because he never hedges: he knows he doesn’t know. The Pretender, the most complete development of his music, is bounded by contradiction. In “The Fuse,” the record’s first song, Browne professes: “There’s a part of me …/Alive in eternity/That nothing can kill.” In “The Pretender,” the final number, he dismisses such spiritual hope: “I’m going to be a happy idiot/And struggle for the legal tender.” Both of these statements are naive; for Browne they are equally true and false. So he admonishes his son, in “The Only Child”: “Let your illusions last until they shatter.”
If Browne has been heralded as a songwriter, this is due mostly to his lyric gift. The music itself has usually been ignored (at least by his admirers) and for good reason. His three earlier albums are sluggish and cluttered, a hodgepodge of California studio effects, without a solid center.
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The Pretender uses identical rudiments, but focuses them. The results are often moving and compelling. The album’s spareness is accentuated by passages of almost dreamy lushness (the strings on “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate”) and echoing vocals, which are a recurrent mannerism. Part of the improvement can be attributed to producer (and Rolling Stone contributing editor) Jon Landau, although it is also indicative of the artist’s increased maturity. Browne’s voice is notoriously weak, for instance, but the strength of the rhythm section forces the singing past its limits. On “Sleep’s Dark,” “The Pretender” and “The Only Child,” the vocals have a new passion, equal to the themes.
Still, much of this album is the mellow California rock of which the Eagles are the alternate prototype. If Browne’s music has more backbone than the rest, the genre itself is not very challenging. There is a tendency to blandness, even in a song as strong as “Your Bright Baby Blues.” So “The Pretender,” which uses the same musical conventions to achieve the dramatic force of Rod Stewart’s “The Killing of Georgie” or Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” is all the more remarkable.
If Browne were a different sort of performer, one might think he’s outgrowing his environment. But all his music, perhaps even the singing, is functional. The focus is always lyrical. The arrangements and performances are successful precisely to the degree that they bring our full attention to the emotions and ideas he articulates.
And it is Browne the lyricist who is often taken as a symbol, and most often misunderstood. He has been condemned as a rampant sexist, and with good reason: co writing the Eagles’ chauvinistic anthem, “Take It Easy,” was inexcusable. But his romantic perspective is considerably more complicated. His affairs are never casual, not even when he’s dismissive, as in “Linda Paloma.” And in “Here Come Those Tears Again,” he uses his confusion to greatest advantage. The role of the singer isn’t clear: is he anticipating the return of a lover who has jilted him, or is he imagining the reaction of a lover he’s just jilted? Perhaps both. For this song, at least, his vision of love turns on something rare: friendship.
Browne may also be the apocalyptic visionary, the questing hero in search of the Big Bang of final romance that his hard-core cult sees him as. But as someone who’s always had reservations about admiring him, I find that Jackson Browne touches me most deeply when he’s most specific, least cosmic. Writing about mortality and parental roles, he is as mature as any writer in rock, and more cogent than most. The metaphysics are there, all right, but it is the characters and experiences on which they are based that make them compelling.
The most striking songs on The Pretender are concerned with death and parenthood, subjects not necessarily unrelated (see the earlier “For a Dancer”). Often, his apocalyptic imagery is merely a way of getting at his feelings of mortality — the crumbling towers of Babylon in “The Fuse” are as much about the inevitable erosion of time as anything else. And parenthood is seen as a symbol of the middle-class life he has experienced: it’s both a joy and a trap. In “Daddy’s Tune,” he reaches out to his father, long ago alienated, in order to share with him the turmoil of advising his son in “The Only Child.” In a way, this is his ultimate dilemma — to be a father, or to be a son. And his ultimate triumph is to realize and reconcile the parent and the child in each of us.
Such song-to-song concordances are not unusual. Lines and images overlap: the drum in “The Fuse” and “Daddy’s Tune,” and the opening lines of “Your Bright Baby Blues” and “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate,” which is about both the horror of a marriage gone bad and man at his most mortal: “The only thing that makes me cry/Is the kindness in my baby’s eye.” And all of these cross-references come rushing to a climax in “The Pretender.”
“The Pretender” is a breakthrough. Browne has always had traces of cynicism in his writing, but about romance he has remained firm. Love can make a difference, all of his songs say. But “The Pretender” is a song about why even that won’t work, in the long run. In its most shattering moment, the hero imagines what he and his dream-lover will do, if ever they manage to meet:
And then we’ll put our dark glasses on
And we’ll make love until our strength is gone
Daniel Blank, the irrational murderer of Lawrence Sanders’ novel, The First Deadly Sin, also made love wearing sunglasses. This is what he found: “For me, it was a revelation, a door opening … I can never forget it. It was the most sexually exciting thing I’d ever done in my life. There was something primitive and exciting about it. But it shook me. I wanted to do it again.” The next week, he begins strolling the streets, murdering strangers with an ice ax.
“The Pretender” cruises a similar street, but with a different aim. As a romantic he wants only love, but as a modern, middleclass southern Californian, he’s unsure what to do with it. Clawing at the world, trying to make sense of something, one choice seems almost as good as another. The happy idiot who struggles for the legal tender is finally as free as the romantic fool who waits for love to change everything — and both are equally trapped. Each has only one certainty: “Get up and do it again, Amen.”
This is the prayer we are asked to say for the Pretender, “who started out so young and strong/Only to surrender.” It is a prayer for Everyman, as much as any other prayer. What makes the song work, though, are its specifics, the way that even the junkman, pounding his fender, becomes a part of this cosmic cycle. The images are tied to a time and a place, as the best of any writer’s work is — and the horror is in just such detail: the house beside the freeway, the packed lunch, the work, the endless evenings. Getting up and doing it again, seen this way, is not so very mystical, but simply the way each of us — even the artist — lives his life.
Repeating this inhumane cycle, which defines humanity, we are left with very little. Perhaps only that particle: “Alive in eternity/That nothing can kill.” Jackson Browne’s contradictions, his ambivalence, are not resolved, but they are reconciled. One might say that this is the end of the hero’s quest. But there is no end to searches such as this. They repeat themselves from generation to generation, year to year, day to day. Just as all of our illusions last, until they shatter.