Friday, November 15, 2013
Late For The Sky - Jackson Browne
I've never liked Jackson Browne yet somehow in the past few years I've seen him live three times and enjoyed his performance each time. I saw him cover Warren Zevon at a Dawes show, I saw him cover the Everly Brothers with Jenny Lewis and the Beach Boys with Dawes at the tribute to Glen Campbell at the Hollywood Bowl and most recently I saw him do a guest spot with My Morning Jacket down in Irvine. He did a Dylan song and "Late for the Sky" off this album. Having the best live band in the world back up Browne is like hiring Wolfgang Puck to make the pizza for your little kid's birthday party, but boy did it sound great. Despite all this I haven't changed my mind about Browne, I still find him kind of boring. I was a teenager during his heyday and despised him, lumping him in with James Taylor and the Eagles and that whole 1970s singer/songwriter scene as well as the laid back Southern California country rockers that I blamed for ruining rock. That was unfair to him, he was more talented than those guys and when I was in college I softened a bit and bought some of his albums in bargain bins and garage sales. Most of them now sit on my purgatory shelf while I decide whether I really want to keep them. The only one I ever liked much was "Running On Empty" because it was relatively rough and even rocked a little. However if I had to name his best album, I'd probably select this one even though I rarely play it. The most striking thing about it is the cover which I think is one of the best ones of its era. Browne's biggest asset is his lyric writing which is evident in the opening track, "Late For The Sky" which is the best song on the album. It is a stunning portrait of alienation and a disintegrating relationship delivered with a mournful country rock tune. I don't think Browne is a good singer, but in this case he expresses considerable feeling and I find his performance more moving than usual. David Lindley's guitar solo is very expressive as well. "Fountain of Sorrow" covers a lot of the same ground but it is not quite so bleak. The song is more uptempo as well, pushed along by Jai Winding's energetic piano lines. Browne's vocal is typically bland, I have to force myself to pay attention to the words. The song goes on too long, I lose interest before it peters out. "Farther On" is very introspective as Browne examines the role of music and dreams in his life and persistence in the face of perpetual failure. It is a lovely song, but it hardly has any tune and is largely carried by Browne's vocal which just makes me wish someone else was singing. Side one ends with "The Late Show" which is another relationship song that stresses the importance and difficulty of relating to another person with honesty and openness. It is more mournful country rock, but Browne's dreary vocal makes the song sound more whiny than confessional. The Eagles-ish harmonies from the background singers (who include J. D. Souther and Don Henley, yuck) don't help any. Side two kicks off with the only song on the album that could be considered a rocker, "The Road and the Sky." The song uses the metaphor of a road trip to examine themes of fulfillment and freedom. It is propulsive enough to keep me from getting bored and even has a little guitar noise. It figures that the most musically stimulating song on the album is also the shortest one. "For A Dancer" is a eulogy for a dead friend that touches on the meaning of existence as well. It has one of the better melodies on the record and a lovely fiddle solo from Lindley, but it is ultimately undermined by Browne's dull vocal. "Walking Slow" is a light song by Browne's standards in which he takes a stroll feeling good although he also takes a little time to mention his relationship troubles as well. It has an appropriately punchy and jaunty tune, but Browne's vocal is hopelessly stiff. The album finishes with "Before the Deluge" which is a depressing song about the futility of human life in the face of the apocalypse as well as the disillusionment of youthful hippie idealism as his generation grows older with a little ecological rage thrown in as well. Musically it is the usual tedium until the final section where the chorus and Lindley's fiddle give the song some much needed vitality. I admire Browne's songwriting ability, he writes intelligently and expresses himself with vulnerability and sincerity, but as a performer, I just can't relate to him. I think the decisive cross-references with Browne are Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Mitchell also writes deeply personal and highly poetic songs often with minimal musical accompaniment but she is a world class singer who can bring out the feelings in the words. Paul Simon isn't that much more expressive as a singer than Browne, but he writes memorable melodies that enhance his songs which is something that Browne can't do with any consistency. Recommended to Bruce Springsteen fans who like his slow songs better than his fast ones.