10 Of The Best Jackson Browne Songs
10 Of The Best Jackson Browne Songs
One of the great American singer-songwriters, Jackson Browne first came to prominence with the release of his debut album in 1972, and reached a commercial zenith with the release of his last record of the seventies, Running On Empty.
Recorded live on the road – at soundchecks and in hotel rooms – Running on Empty wasn't just an unusual album because of the way it was made. It was also unusual in that was a genuine blockbuster release – and sounded liked like a classic Californian 70s pop-rock record - yet it reeked of despair and jadedness.
As suggested by the album's title and articulated in its title track, and despite massive commercial and critical success, the album's creator seemingly saw himself on the edge of burnout. Afterall, Browne was living in the eye of the hurricane. Not only was his own star ascending, but he was close personal friend and collaborator of the Eagles, whose Hotel California, released some twelve months earlier, put them and their entourage at the centre of a music world that revelled in opulence and decadence. Browne had also recently suffered personal tragedy and trauma, with the suicide of his wife in 1976. With its songs of roadies ("The Load Out" and "Rosie") and drug abuse (Jackson's cover of the old folk-blues tune "Cocaine" by Reverend Gary Davis), Running On Empty was more or less inspired by the shallowness of life on the road, while the very nature of how Browne put it together – his previous albums had all been carefully crafted – was maybe a statement too; Jackson was a bit over it all.
It wasn't an entirely uncharacteristic record from this particular artist though. From the very beginning, Jackson Browne's writing suggested he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. His gorgeous melodies were always grafted to a strong sense of melancholy, his earnest yet warm voice somehow always sounded just a little bit tired, and his songs seemed crammed with endless verses and a general tumble of words that suggested a man trying to find the right expression for his existential crises in order to properly pinpoint them.
Here’s ten of the best.
With a lyrical sensitivity seemingly at odds with the hedonism surrounding him, Browne had been an old soul from the beginning. His much-loved song "These Days", written when he was 16 year old folkie and first recorded a couple of years later by his then-girlfriend Nico of The Velvet Underground fame on her 1967 Chelsea Girl album, sounded it was written by someone of at least twice his age: "These days I seem to think a lot / About the things that I forgot to do / And all the times I had the chance to." Jackson wouldn't record it himself till his second album, but it would go on to become one his most covered songs.
Rock Me On The Water
One of the many highlights from Jackson's first album, and a song that Linda Ronstadt released a version of in the very same month. The song shares gospel roots with both blues and Ronstadt's beloved country music, and the song has a genuine apocalyptic tinge in keeping with some of the more overtly political songs Brown would write in subsequent decades. Inspired by the ecological concerns of the early 70s, the opening lines of the song are perhaps even more prescient now: "Oh people, look around you / The signs are everywhere /You've left it for somebody other than you / To be the one to care."
Jamaica, Say You Will
The song that Browne had sent a demo of to David Geffen, prompting Geffen to start up his own label Asylum so he could sign him, the first version of "Jamaica, Say You Will" released was by the Byrds in 1971. It followed other West Coast covers of his songs, by the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (a band which Jackson actually helped found), making Jackson a go-to songwriter on the scene. The song was later covered by Joe Cocker, and more recently by Ben Harper.
Take It Easy
The Eagles' version is better known – it's one of their most famous songs – but Jackson recorded his own take of the tune he wrote but couldn't finish until Glenn Frey gave him a hand on his second album, some months after the Eagles had had a smash with it. Even is this seemingly laid back song the words warn of future troubles: "Take it easy, take it easy /Don't let the sound of your own wheels / Make you crazy.".
The title track of Jackson's second album contains more apocalyptic visions, but this time Jackson states his will to remain at one with the world, and not to separate or isolate himself from the world's troubles with any elite. A beautiful sentiment, perhaps at odds with those of some around him (the song apparently was written in response to David Crosby's “Wooden Ships”, which talks of getting away via the sea), it's a clear statement of Browne’s empathy for his fellow man and his search for answers rather than escape.
Late For The Sky
The title track from Jackson's third and perhaps most beautiful album turns the focus inward and looks at looks at the emptiness and desolation of a dying relationship. This is one of those incredibly wordy Jackson Brown songs where he has thrown economy of verse out the window and has included every work he needs to make his exact point. Something like "Now for me, some words come easy / But I know that they don't mean that much / Compared with the things that are said when lovers touch" actually takes some listening, but it says much and implies more.
Fountain of Sorrow
As featured in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver oddly enough. Another song from Late For The Sky, and perhaps an even sadder (and wordier) one. And one written it would seem, with a particular person and situation in mind. The "fountain of sorrow" here is one's own being – "There's this loneliness springing up from your life / Like a fountain from a pool" – making this one of the bleaker songs in Jackson's cannon...
Before the Deluge
Did I speak too soon about bleakness? Our third track from Jackson Browne's remarkable third album hits at disaster of Biblical proportions, and returns to the sentiments of "For Everyman" and "Rock Me on The Water". It admonishes those who would seek to exploit nature for their own material gain while at the same time pronouncing the foolishness of those who talked of getting "back to nature"' – a common enough aspiration in the early 70s – whether they were those with good intentions or the hedonists who fritted it all away. The song, which is carried by a beautiful, almost church-like melody and David Lindley’s fiddle is written from a post-apocalyptic perspective and looks warmly to the future. Jackson perhaps wants the end to come so we can start again. The chorus is gorgeous: "Let the music keep our spirits high / Let the buildings keep our children dry /Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by / When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky."
For A Dancer
And more of that heartbreaking beauty is found in this, our final Late For The Sky selection, which is many a Browne fan's personal favourite. Another beautiful melody (is it me or are many of the songs on this album almost like variations on a similar theme?), more references to the sky and childhood, and a heart-wrenching acknowledgement that while there may be a point to life, after all, we will probably never know what it is: "Somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go / May lie a reason you were alive but you'll never know."
Another existential crisis, although this time not bought on by either love, or the ruination of the world. Jackson here looks at the phoniness of modern existence and quite clearly foresees the self-interest and "greed is good" ethos of the coming decade. While one assumes he has a broader target, he did name his 1976 album after the song and featured himself on the cover looking decidedly alone in a crowd on the street. Surely the self-examination continues here.
Jackson's Browne's remastered edition of Running On Empty is out now on CD, LP and digital. Get your physical copy here.
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