CK Retro Review: Running On Empty by Jackson BrownePosted: October 6, 2014
Considering that single songs about a rock star’s life on tour can be self-indulgent, baasing an entire album on that concept would seem to have serious train-wreck potential. Yet Jackson Browne emerged triumphant in 1977 with Running On Empty, scoring a pair of Top 20 singles and his biggest-selling album in the heart of the disco era. While a big hit sometimes represents selling out, in Browne’s case it was a matter of his poignant observations about life on the road resonating with fans who could relate to the loneliness. Here is a song-by-song review:
9. “Nothing But Time”- The fact that it was recorded on a bus may win it some novelty points, but it also makes it feel even more like a throwaway.
8. “Shaky Town”- Written by guitarist Danny Kortchmar, it doesn’t have the heft of your typical Browne composition but it works here on an album with a much more laid-back vibe than any of Jackson’s previous efforts. The CB jargon dates it a bit.
7. “You Love The Thunder”- Even with the excellent work of the Section (the famed band of West Coast session musicians who back Browne throughout the album) trying to propel it, this one has a bit of a generic classic rock feel about it. Luckily Browne’s lyrics elevate it a bit, as he warns an admirer that the itinerant life may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
6. “Cocaine”- Browne played it sparse with this oft-covered blues classic from the Rev. Gary Davis, sticking with just acoustic guitars and David Lindley’s mournful fiddle. Although the bones of the original song are there, Browne and Glenn Frey added some lyrics, and you have to think they were responsible for these lines: “I was talking to my doctor down at the hospital/He said, ‘Son, it says here you’re twenty-seven, but that’s impossible/Cocaine, you look like you could be forty-five.’”
5. “The Load Out/Stay”- No sense separating these songs, since Browne restructured Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ oldie “Stay” to fit the touring theme. (Who knew Lindley could hit those falsetto high notes?) It would have been disingenuous to say that everything on the road is a bummer, so the goosed-up second half after the somber piano open is necessary at this point in the album. I’m not sure that a listener can separate this one from its specific setting like some of the others here, but as an anthropological study of a touring rock star, you can’t beat it.
4. “The Road”- It was written by Danny O’ Keefe of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” fame, but you could easily mistake it for a Browne original thanks to its chilling melody and piercingly self-aware lyrics. Again Lindley is invaluable here with his tender violin work, and the moment when the song shifts from a hotel-room jam into an arena performance is both clever and well-executed. Add in a lived-in vocal from Browne just to tip the scales even further in this one’s favor.
3. “Rosie”- The genius of this one is that Browne plays it straight. Had the music not been so earnest, the silliness of the masturbation jokes would have run amok and turned this one into a kind of parody song. But the beauty of the melody and the sensitivity of Browne’s vocal, even with a knowing wink in his voice, make the narrator’s predicament hit home. And anyway, it’s true: “It’s who you look like/Not who you are.”
2. “Love Needs A Heart”- This is one of the most unheralded songs on the album but it’s a showstopper in its way. Co-written with Lowell George and Valerie Carter, “Love Needs A Heart” finds Browne sinking into a country-tinged ballad with heartbreakingly pretty results. What grabs you about this song is how honest the narrator is in assessing his romantic capabilities. In a way, the message mirrors that old break-up cliché “It’s not you, it’s me.” Only this time the guy really means it, and admitting his immunity to love is akin to admitting that a lifetime of solitude is ahead if he can’t turn the page.
1. “Running On Empty”- Only two years before, Bruce Springsteen had summed up an entire ethos with his song “Born To Run.” This feels like an answer record of sorts. Browne’s character is running, but it doesn’t fulfill him and he can’t escape the feeling that he’s running late and missing something life-altering. At least he’s got a killer soundtrack for his journey thanks to Russ Kunkel’s energizing drums and Lindley’s moaning slide. Browne wants to shake off any spokesman status (“I don’t know about anyone but me”), but he just does his job summing up the aimlessness of a whole generation too damn well to get away with it.
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