I doubt that very many readers of this article have heard of Jackson Browne, and probably only a handful have heard any of his songs. Indeed, the 65-year-old singer-songwriter and erstwhile rock star had his most successful year in 1974, when his album Late for the Sky peaked at #14 on the Billboard 200. Now, he is most well known for co-writing “Take It Easy,” that signature Eagles megahit, and “Somebody’s Baby,” which was featured in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Despite his relative lack of contemporary recognition, though, Jackson Browne has been my favorite musician since I was fifteen, when my best friend lent me his CD of Late for the Sky. Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne, which was released in April and features covers of twenty of Mr. Browne’s songs by such artists as Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen, and Keb’ Mo’, has merely amplified my appreciation of the man. Nearly all the covers, though they may lack that signature Jackson touch, lend new meaning to his unique brand of elegiac and heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll.
Born on a U.S. Army base in West Germany in 1948 and raised in Los Angeles, Browne first came to prominence in the early 1970s, releasing a string of critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums: first, 1972’s Saturate Before Using, which was propelled by the cheerful musicality of “Doctor My Eyes”; next, 1973’s For Everyman; then, 1974’s Late for the Sky. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website refers to these early works as “a trilogy of brooding, metaphysical folk-rock albums,” an apt description. Even “Doctor My Eyes”—a light and optimistic radio hit for those who don’t listen to lyrics—is in reality anything but. As Browne proclaims in the first verse: “Doctor, my eyes have seen the years / And the slow parade of fears without crying / Now I want to understand.” And Late for the Sky’s title track features the following bridge verse, set lachrymosely to an aching slide guitar: “Looking hard into your eyes / There was nobody I’d ever known / Such an empty surprise to feel so alone.” Inducting Jackson Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen said of the singer: “The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson gave us California as paradise, and Jackson Browne gave us paradise lost […] Jackson, to me, was always the tempered voice of Abel, toiling in the vineyards, here to bear the earthly burdens, confronting the impossibility of love.” Few other descriptions do similar justice to Jackson Browne: each of his songs—especially these early ones—is steeped in layers of loss and longing, yet endlessly hopeful and committed to fighting on despite the hardship.
When I brought up the idea of reviewing the new Jackson Browne tribute album at a meeting for this newspaper a few weeks ago, one of the editors responded: “Not to be antagonistic, but when I hear the name Jackson Browne, I think of my mom in the ‘70s.” That retort seems characteristic of Mr. Browne’s legacy in our generation—that folk-rock singer from the 1970s that our parents put on occasionally to relive the glory days. And it’s not an unfair characterization. A few years back, when I told my mother that I had started listening to his music, I received the following response: “That’s amazing! I loved Jackson Browne in the ‘70s!” She and her brother, who grew up on James Taylor, Carole King, and Don McLean, associated with Browne’s early albums. My dad, though raised in California, did not care as much for folk-rock, but told me that he has always enjoyed Browne’s bigger hits: 1976’s iconic “The Pretender” and 1977’s faster-paced “Running on Empty,” both the title tracks of their respective albums. And when I asked at the Princeton Record Exchange whether they had received the new album, the lady at the counter answered: “Jackson Browne? Hmm…the guy who wrote ‘Rock Me on the Water’ [an oft-covered song from his 1972 debut album]?”
What resonates here is the overwhelming affiliation of Jackson Browne to the 1970s. In reality, he has continued releasing albums of original music every few years for the past forty years. 2008’s Time the Conqueror, though by no means a great album, was his ninth studio recording since 1976’s The Pretender. That no one knows much of the intermediate albums is probably a combination of the demise of folk music in the 1980s and Browne’s personal rise to stardom at the end of the 1970s. Whereas his early music is driven by teenage angst (a shocking number of songs, including “These Days,” “The Pretender,” and “The Barricades of Heaven,” refer to Browne circa ages 16-17), existential crises, and real profound sadness (much of The Pretender, including the haunting “Here Come Those Tears Again,” was written after his first wife’s suicide), Browne sacrifices these personal themes musically and lyrically in favor of political activism during the ‘80s, to varied success: 1986’s Lives in the Balance, for example, provides a topical condemnation of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, though few others were as poignant. Most of the songs of this period woefully echo the sort of synth-heavy pop-rock for which the 1980s are either reviled or revered, depending on taste.
The end of the 1980s, coupled with a high-profile relationship with actress Daryl Hannah that ended in 1992, signaled another shift in Browne’s style, and for the past twenty-odd years his songs have become more nostalgic, inward-facing, and musically in line with his work of the 1970s. 1992’s I’m Alive features some of his most approachable and lasting songs, including the tragically beautiful “Sky Blue and Black” and “Too Many Angels,” which walks the line between acceptably nostalgic and outright saccharine with grace and poise. 1996’s Looking East, 2002’s The Naked Ride Home, and 2008’s Time the Conqueror contribute only a few memorable songs to Browne’s oeuvre but highlight his prolificacy. More important to Browne’s legacy, however, have been the various live and compilation albums that usually signal the demise of a singer’s reputation as a legitimate creator of new music. 1997’s The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne, 2005’s and 2008’s Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 and Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2, 2006’s Live at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and 2010’s Love Is Strange: En Vivo Con Tino (the latter two with David Lindley), have overwhelmingly emphasized Browne’s early years en masse, while picking only select good songs from the albums after The Pretender. Given that almost none of Browne’s albums since 1976 are good through and through, this is hardly surprising. In consequence, despite the wealth of new songs written over the past thirty odd years, Jackson Browne has not aged well: to listeners both young and old, he is more Carole King than Bruce Springsteen, confined to songs written when our parents were our age for popular acknowledgement. The greatness of Springsteen is his ability to adapt to changing times and crank out good music whenever those times call for it. This is why The Rising, written in the wake of 9/11, is arguably as good—if not as important—an album as the seminal Born to Run. Browne never made albums as great as Saturate Before Using or Late For the Sky. Had he, perhaps his reputation would be different.
Which brings us to Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne. On the whole, it is a very good album, if not solely because it takes very good songs by Jackson Browne and doesn’t ruin them. A strength of the album is the diversity of generations represented: Browne’s contemporaries include Don Henley, who is mismatched with the simple, introspective “These Days”; Bruce Springsteen, who gives the meandering “Linda Paloma” new life; and JD Souther, whose “My Opening Farewell” is livelier than the original and an appropriate end to the album. A slew of not-much-younger musicians contribute in unexpected ways: Ben Harper’s “Jamaica Say You Will” is especially good and the Indigo Girls’ “Fountain of Sorrow” is musically energetic yet cognizant of the weight of the lyrics. Less successful are Joan Osborne’s slowed-down “Late for the Sky” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Everywhere I Go,” which turns too repetitive by the third minute. Fortunately, the album’s compilers opted to avoid the pop hits of the 1980s—prominent among these snubs are “Lawyers in Love,” “Somebody’s Baby,” and “For a Rocker.” No better decision could have been made: what makes the great Jackson Browne songs great is their combination of ruminative lyrics and patient melodies. They are mournful and hopeful at the same time, and possessed of that peculiar Southern California quality that asks just the right questions and isn’t afraid to take its time in answering them. The great joy of Looking Into You is realizing how perfectly these songs translate to different voices and musical styles, as if Austin-based Bob Schneider, born 1965, could have written “Running On Empty”; or Griffin House, born 1980 and raised in Springfield, Ohio, could have created the 1992 classic “The Barricades of Heaven,” with its timeless intro: “Running down around the towns along the shore / When I was sixteen and on my own / No, I couldn’t tell you what the hell those brakes were for / I was just trying to hear my song.” The great songs of Jackson Browne present realities of the world at once individually applicable and universally true. They speak to each of us and all of us. Their universality is precisely the feature that makes them distinctly Jackson.
I first got into Jackson Browne in that awkward phase of adolescence where nothing seems to really make sense and you’re caught between the comforts of youth and promise of adulthood. I turned to “These Days” and “The Barricades of Heaven.” The former was written in 1964, when Browne was himself sixteen years, and starts with the simplest of lyrics: “Well I’ve been out walking / I don’t do that much talking these days / These days,” and ends with wisdom beyond his years: “Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them. “Barricades” was written in 1992 but speaks of the same time and issues with thirty years of hindsight and experience. There’s something comforting in someone telling you that he both understands what you’re going through and can guarantee that it’s all going to be alright. I turn to Jackson for these times. When everything is sunny it’s all Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews Band and The Decemberists and Bob Dylan and Dire Straits. For everything else, it’s Jackson Browne. No doubt the musicians who contributed to this album felt somewhat the same way, which makes this tribute such a pleasure to experience.