CK Retro Review: I’m Alive by Jackson Browne

After spending most of the 80’s expounding on the problems of the world at large and the evil that men in power tend to do, Jackson Browne brought it all back home with a break-up album. 1993’s I’m Alive finds Browne shedding the trendier sounds that made his 80’s efforts so erratic, sounding at folk-rock ease here even when the lyrics betray pain and anguish. While it doesn’t quite scale the heights of his 70’s masterworks, there are more than enough echoes of that dizzying greatness, especially in the strong second half of the album, to make it a fine return to form. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

10. “Miles Away”- Browne is joined throughout the album by three members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers; Scott Thurston is essentially his right-hand man on the disc while Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench pop up sporadically, including on this track. Alas, Browne seems a little lost in the grinding rock beat here, which could have used some of the attitude inherent in Petty’s drawl.

THREE STARS

9. “Everywhere I Go”- Browne continues his 80’s tradition of including a reggae-tinged track for some musical color. He even breaks into a quasi-rap that he pulls off better than you might expect.

8. “I’ll Do Anything”- The moodiness of the acoustic guitar makes the titular promise seem dark and desperate, as if nothing he does is going to turn the tide. It’s a bit one-note in terms of its approach, but it certainly sustains the tension bubbling to the surface of the relationship in question.

7. “Take This Rain”- The gentle sway of the music and the catchiness of the chorus help to take the sting out of the fact that the narrator is admitting that there is no saving matters between his woman and him. “You’re going to be free,” he sings, almost encouragingly, treading the high road because contemplating what’s below is just too painful.

6. “My Problem Is You”- Actually, it would have been more accurate for him to have said, “My problem is the lack of you.” Some soulful backing vocals help in enliven an arrangement that’s too tasteful to draw much blood. The humor at the end, where Browne claims to not care about the ozone layer (we don’t believe you) or Madonna’s latest exploits, earns this one a couple extra points.

5. “All Good Things”- Don Henley and David Crosby stop by to lend backing vocals, the latter’s appearance extremely appropriate since Campbell plays a particularly Byrds-y guitar part. Browne widens his focus a bit here, so that his pronouncements about finality could apply to a love affair or a life. Maybe a bit of an anticlimax after the towering “Sky Blue And Black”, but I guess you really couldn’t put a song with this subject matter anywhere but album’s end.

4. “Too Many Angels”- This is a beautiful set of lyrics and music that gets a tad too fussy production and arrangement-wise for my liking. The excess atmosphere and too-prominent backing vocals distract a bit from Browne’s unsparing look at the uncontrollable downward spiral of a relationship. “But there’s no end in sight,” he sings, referring to the inner torment one suffers in the midst of a dying love affair. “Only the dead of night.” That kind of powerful moment doesn’t need any embellishment.

FOUR STARS

3. “I’m Alive”- On the title track and opener, Browne comes out the other side of a spent relationship, incredulous that he survived it. While he doesn’t skimp on the painful details or darker emotions, the light-footed rhythm, airy electric guitars, and subtly exotic percussion touches leave him sounding buoyant in spite of all the wounds where he’s been run through. Out on the open road again and looking forward instead of back, his narrator ends up more triumphant than tortured.

2. “Sky Blue And Black”- The kind of sprawling love-and-loss song that Browne trademarked and perfected circa ’73, “Sky Blue And Black” is centered by his piano, all plaintive chords and a yearning five-note riff that’s repeated throughout the song. The backing vocalists (Arnold McCuller and old Browne buddy Valerie Carter) provide powerful counterpoint to Browne’s wordy ruminations. When he says, “That’s the way love is” at the end, you believe him, because he really hasn’t left anything relevant out of the equation.

FIVE STARS

1. “Two Of Me, Two Of You”- The most underrated songs by rockers with longevity tend to be their non-singles from late-period albums, songs that tend to be known and considered to any degree only by diehards. This stunningly pretty and fearless dissection of the causes of  relationship fissures is a fine example of this phenomenon. Browne’s melody is resigned and sorrowful even when it soars, and the lyrics, simple on the surface, cut as deep as heartbreak. This is the man doing what he does best: depicting the hollow tradeoff when insight is gained at the expense of love.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

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