from Rolling Stone

Co-written by Jackson Browne and the Eagles' Glenn Frey, "Take It Easy" pinpoints the attitudinal and musical changes taking place at the start of the '70s: "Don't even try to understand/Just find a place to make your stand/And take it easy." While the Eagles pursued the more hedonistic implications of that agenda, "trying to understand" is what Jackson Browne has always been about. Though he's focused on events in the world around him since the mid- '80s, Browne refined and perfected the role of singer-songwriter in the '70s. He took the autobiographical charge of Joni Mitchell's early transmissions and raised the voltage. His philosophical slant endeared Browne to a generation of smart teenagers who'd read a bit and were asking Big Questions, too. Along with Mitchell, Jackson Browne served as a combination bard-sex symbol-intellectual mentor. Though both these L.A. troubadours also commanded sizable audiences among adults, their formative influence on current singers and songwriters — not to mention people — can't be overstated. Browne's debut lays the groundwork for future heart-and-soul excavations. "Doctor My Eyes," an early hit single, communicates the subdued, subtle power of his half-spoken melodies, while "Rock Me on the Water" and "Song for Adam" foreshadow the free-ranging contemplation to come. For Everyman strikes a remarkable balance, though; the cool introspection of "I Thought I Was a Child" and "Sing My Song to Me" is leavened by the warm humor of "Ready or Not" and "Redneck Friend." David Lindley's loping slide quitar and arsenal of stringed instruments buoys Jackson's occasional slides into melancholy. "These Days," an FM-radio hit for Gregg Allman, stands as one of Browne's most intricately detailed emotional scenarios.

Late for the Sky strengthens and solidifies Browne's approach; it's the quintessential Browne album, if not quite the best. The metaphorical complexity of "Fountain of Sorrow" and the clear-eyed poignancy of "For a Dancer" would be a tough act to follow; unsurprisingly, "The Fuse" and "Sleep's Dark & Silent Gate" (both from The Pretender) aren't quite as eloquent. They are effective, though; Browne's once-hesitant singing improves with each album. But even when his songwriting is sharp, the mellowing trend in his music dulls the impact. Browne eerily predicts the rise of the yuppie on The Pretender's title track, only to have his point undercut by a creeping string section.

Just when it seemed that mellow inevitably turned to mush, Browne made good on all the singer-songwriters' claims to confessional integrity. At a time when the overdub-enhanced live double album was a rock commonplace, Browne released a real concert document. Running on Empty collects new material, unrecorded cover versions, motel jams, loose ends, rough edges, mistakes and unexpected moments of triumph. Running on Empty exudes intimacy, revealing the empathetic, flexible bond between Browne and his audience.

Hold Out returns to the pop-ification program begun on The Pretender, though even the catchiest ruminations (the title track and "Hold on Hold Out") don't sink in over time like the thoughtful hooks of old. Lawyers in Love marks Jackson's transition from the personal to the politcal. The title track is a cutting slice of social observation, but the remainder of the album is muddled. For the first time, Browne seems unsure of himself. Interestingly, both Browne and Mitchell started writing topical songs in the mid-'80s. Browne has stuck with it. The subsequent albums convey his passion and commitment, though the well-intentioned broadsides and liberation anthems never quite connect with the musical setting: tasteful state-of-the-art L.A. studiocraft. Little Steve Van Zandt's "I Am a Patriot," from World in Motion, is the only truly memorable song on Browne's trilogy of protest albums.

M.C.

 

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