Jackson Browne is the quintessential 1970s singer-songwriter, a sensitive individual who analysed his difficult relationships into songs. He was extremely well connected into the 1970s soft-rock scene – he dated Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, wrote the Eagles‘ first hit single, and produced Warren Zevon’s breakthrough album.
Primarily, Browne’s a lyricist, one of the best text writers in pop music, whether he’s tackling international politics:
On the radio talk shows and TVfrom ‘Lives In The Balance’
You hear one thing again and again
How the USA stands for freedom
And we come to the aid of a friend
Or analysing relationships:
You keep it upfrom ‘In The Shape Of A Heart’
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
The shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart
Jackson Browne’s most artistically successful decade was the 1970s, during which he made five studio albums. Browne’s right-hand man during this era was guitarist, fiddler, and falsetto vocalist David Lindley, who enlivened Browne’s albums with his instrumental work. Browne’s voice is boyish, and not always engaging, and Lindley helped to make his records more accessible.
Here is my ranking of Browne’s 1970s albums:
#5 Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using)
Jackson Browne’s debut didn’t emerge for six years after he wrote ‘These Days’ for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. His first record, for David Geffen’s Asylum album, is his most minimal, and outside the singles, his material is simply presented – it’s the only 1970s album that guitarist David Lindley doesn’t appear on. It’s the singles that shine – ‘Doctor My Eyes’ was the surprise hit, but I prefer the gospel-tinged ‘Rock Me On The Water’ and the plaintive ‘Jamaica Say You Will’.
Favourite Song: ‘Jamaica Say You Will’
The daughter of a captain on the rolling seas
She would stare across the water from the trees
#4 For Everyman
Browne raided his back catalogue for his second album, featuring already well-known songs like ‘These Days’ and ‘Take It Easy’. The arrangements are fuller, and David Lindley’s guitar and fiddle parts are prominent, joining The Section musicians Russ Kunkel, Craig Doerge, and Leland Sklar. Elton John plays piano on the rollicking ‘Redneck Friend’, but my favourite is ‘For Everyman’, a post-apocalyptic vision of sailing to a new society, with David Crosby on backing vocals.
Favourite Song: ‘For Everyman’
Everybody’s just waiting to hear from the one
Who can give them the answers
And lead them back to that place
In the warmth of the sun
Where sweet childhood still dances
#3 Running on Empty
Jackson Browne’s best-known work is a live album of all-new songs, themed around the seedy side of a musician’s life on the road. Browne was a big enough star by 1977 to take The Section and David Lindley as his backing band, and the album was recorded live on stage, as well as in hotel rooms and backstage. Unusually, Browne includes covers, like a charming version of ‘Stay’ spotlighting Lindley’s falsetto vocals, and co-writers on most tracks. But the title track, one of only two Browne solo compositions, is the standout, a sweeping, Springsteen-esque tale of nostalgia and determination.
Favourite Song: ‘Running on Empty’
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
#2 The Pretender
Browne’s life was affected by personal tragedy during the recording of The Pretender – his wife Phyllis Major committed suicide, leaving Browne as a young solo father. These events are covered in the brief, wrenching ‘Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate’. Production duties on Browne’s fourth album are handled by Jon Landau, who gives Browne’s music more detail than usual. ‘The Fuse’ is one of my favourite Browne deep cuts, and the title track is a fascinating look forward to 1980s yuppies. But my favourite track is ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’, with its warm arrangements and amazing backing band; Little Feat’s Lowell George is prominent on slide guitar and backing vocals, Bill Payne on organ, E-Street Band’s Roy Bittan on piano, Chuck Rainey on bass, and Jim Gordon on drums.
Favourite Song: ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem
To get away from me
#1 Late For The Sky
Jackson Browne attained maximum Jackson Browne-ness with his third album, featuring gorgeous meditations on death and the apocalypse, accompanied by David Lindley’s guitar and fiddle. To save his label money after the expensive For Everyman, Browne used his live band, and they sound great. Apart from the mundane rocker ‘Walking Slow’, every track is strong, and mournful expositions like ‘For A Dancer’ and ‘Fountain of Sorrow’ are prime Browne. But my favourite song is the title track, especially the moment when Browne’s voice cracks on the final note.
Favourite Song: ‘Late For The Sky’
How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
How long have I been running for that morning flight?
Through the whispered promises and the changing light
Of the bed where we both lie
Late for the sky
Although the 1970s were his heyday, Jackson Browne released some strong songs after his first decade – tracks like 1982’s poppy ‘Somebody’s Baby’ and 1993’s gorgeous ‘Sky Blue and Black’ are among his finest. I recommend 2004’s double-disc The Very Best of Jackson Browne as a fine career overview.
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