CK Retro Review: Jackson Browne by Jackson BrownePosted: September 22, 2014
When Jackson Browne released his debut album in 1972, it seemed impossible to many fans that a new artist could arrive on the scene with an album full of songs so advanced and assured. Of course, Browne had been around for years performing and writing songs for others, but that still doesn’t mitigate the singular achievement of his debut (sometimes known as Saturate Before Using due to the cover.) In fact, you could make a fair case that it even outstrips any of his subsequent albums (close, but not quite all of them.) Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Under The Falling Sky”- He would eventually figure out how to lighten the mood on his albums and still sound convincing. Not yet though, as this change of pace is a bit jarring.
9. “A Child In These Hills”- Leaving home isn’t easy, even when you make the conscious choice to do so. That’s the gist of Browne’s plaint here, which is a little limp musically even if the questions it asks can’t help but resonate with anyone who’s ever been in the same boat.
8. “Something Fine”- This pretty bit of wistful folk that features typically effortless Browne lyrics about missing Morocco or at least the feelings (or the girl) associated with it. Nicely understated.
7. “Rock Me On The Water”- Even at this early point in his career, Browne’s Rolodex contained the best of the best of the West Coast’s musicians. Those connections really pay off on songs like this, which builds from a piano intro into something fuller and more resounding. This is California gospel, and it’s more honest in its way than if he had been accompanied by choirs and church organs and the obvious signifiers.
6. “From Silver Lake”- Some guys get everything. In addition to being blessed with ridiculous songwriting skills, Browne owns a voice of chill-inducing clarity. He understood how to show it off too, as he demonstrates here in this bittersweet ode to wanderlust, holding those vowels for bar after bar until every last bit of emotion has dripped from them.
5. “Doctor My Eyes”- Oh yeah, the dude could turn out hit songs too. Even though this song depicts a character who feels way too much about everything and has to see a shrink to cope with it all, the jauntiness of the music keeps things upbeat enough for the Top 10. Early proof that Browne could be just as affecting when he was shooting for efficiency instead of breadth with his lyrics.
4. “Song For Adam”- You hear the adjective “clear-eyed” a lot when people describe Browne’s work, and it’s probably because of songs like these. The death of a friend, most likely by suicide, would be cause for lesser songwriters to rend their garments and pay maudlin tribute. Browne spends the song subtly trying to make sense of it all even as he concedes he never will. He leaves the sorrow to David Campbell’s viola part, which wends it way through in touching fashion.
3. “Jamaica Say You Will”- In the very first song on his very first album, Browne had already nailed down the template that has captivated audiences for over four decades: Singing deeply-felt lyrics over delicate instrumentation about lost love. That makes it sound simple, I know, which it clearly isn’t, or else we’d have a lot more almost eerily perfect songs like this one floating around. The way Browne hints at the girl’s eventual departure in the first two verses before she surprises him by actually leaving in the last speaks movingly to the blinders we tend to wear when a relationship is going so well.
2. “Looking Into You”- Browne also shows he can pull off a flat-out love song without getting mushy. He does it here by keeping the music somewhat somber to provide a balance and by diverting our attention with the narrator’s seemingly endless quest to find some sort of safe harbor in the stormy seas of his life. That sets us up for the poetic potency of his discovery: “Now here I stand at the edge of my embattled illusions/Looking into you.”
1. “My Opening Farewell”- Perhaps the topic that Browne has always been best at illuminating is the landscape of a crumbling relationship, that mystifying conundrum of how we can be aware of what’s going wrong and yet are still powerless to stop it. This earliest incarnation of his thesis on the subject is still one of his finest, abetted by sympathetic instrumentation and a melody that allows him to start in the doldrums, rise with anguish, and then sink back down again into painful resignation that the end is only a falling tear away.
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