From mourning dying love affairs to raging against the political machine, Jackson Browne has found countless ways to express his discontent in song. Given his huge popularity in the ʼ70s and ʼ80s – not to mention the fact that he’s currently on tour in 2019 – it’s clear that a lot of people connect with his sadness and anger.
Raised in LA folk scene, Browne played his songs at places like the famous Troubadour before joining the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band briefly in 1966. But he longed for a solo career, and NYC was the place to be. So, off he went to Greenwich Village.
His simple, heartfelt style soon caught the ear of a young talent manager named David Geffen, who was determined to help Browne land a sweet record contract. When nothing suitable materialized, Geffen’s reaction was completely on-brand: He and his partner started their own record company.
So, Browne signed with the shiny, new Asylum Records and put out his debut, Jackson Browne, in 1972. It must have rankled Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records every single time he heard the hit single “Doctor, My Eyes” on the radio; he’d refused to sign Browne the year before.
That first album’s closing song, “My Opening Farewell,” is a fine introduction to Browne’s beautiful, habitual melancholy.
One indicator that an artist will be important long-term is his or her willingness to seek out and work with gifted, like-minded colleagues. Browne dove deep into the singer-songwriter community for his second album, For Everyman (1973). The team of musicians playing or singing on it include David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Glenn Frey, and Elton John (using the pseudonym Rockaday Johnny).
Besides the folk and rock influences on Browne, there’s no denying a wide streak of country. Here’s Bonnie Raitt singing backing vocals on “The Times You’ve Come”:
No less important than the stars in the studio, session stalwart David Lindley also joined the recording of For Everyman – the first of many collaborations with Browne -- on electric, acoustic, and slide guitar, plus electric fiddle.
Browne had arrived, and 1974’s Late for the Sky was his biggest seller yet, hitting No. 14 on the Billboard pop charts. Its best-known single is the wistful “Fountain of Sorrow.” (If you’ve never heard Joan Baez’s recording of that, do yourself a favor!)
The seven-and-a-half-minute title song was hardly a candidate for radio play, but its instrumental arrangements are especially nice. That’s Lindley on electric and lap steel guitars, and Jai Winding’s long organ tones give the song a kind of horizon view.
The sorrow in Browne’s lyrics was not always the stuff of his imagination. His first wife committed suicide not long before the release of his fourth album, The Pretender, in 1976. This scant collection of eight songs reflects what must have been painful times leading up to the tragedy.
Those cellos that open “Sleep Dark and Silent Gate” prepare you for the depth of heartache in store. But the art of orchestration relies on balance for its strength. I find the soaring violins and crashing drums toward the end to be a step too far into sentimentality.
The public gobbled up all that anguish. Browne’s next two albums, Running on Empty (1977) and Hold Out (1980) each did better than the last, with Hold Out remaining Browne’s only release to hit No. 1.
At this point, his output had slowed to an album every few years, and the more relaxed pace let him maintain his success. Lawyers in Love (1983) was another top-ten record, with fully half of its tracks released as singles.
“Knock on Any Door” was co-written with legendary session guitarist Danny Kortchmar (who, interestingly, does not play on this album) and keyboardist Craig Doerge. The drummer is Russ Kunkel, who keeps coming up in this column because he’s played with so many of the greats. You can tell we’re in the ʼ80s by the brightness and tightness of the sound production.
The following albums find Browne preoccupied with politics. Sadness has turned to anger – sometimes bafflement – at the state of the world and the inaction or irresponsible actions of its leaders. Oliver North was in the headlines in the late ʼ80s, and to express his disapproval on the 1989 album World in Motion, Browne borrowed a rebel’s words. “My Personal Revenge” is a setting by Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy of a (translated) text by Sandinistas co-founder Tomás Borge. Browne keeps the arrangement simple to let the words speak for themselves.
Time takes its toll on everyone’s perspective, and 1993’s I’m Alive also offers a new hue of sadness to Browne’s palette: nostalgia. The songwriter is joined by old friends Don Henley and David Crosby for “All Good Things.”
Probably the most remarkable thing about Looking East (1996) is that Browne employed 22 people just to assist on vocals (not all at once, but still!). Not surprisingly, this album features a rich and varied sound. The largest coalition of singers is on the sarcastic “Information Wars,” using those voices in groups that seem to represent the diversity of America’s population. The arrangement, with elements of electronica, jazz, and African music, is more interesting than the heavy-handed lyrics.
Unlike, say, James Taylor, Browne does not have an obvious and long-standing debt to the blues. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate the genre, as he proved on his 2002 album The Naked Ride Home. “For Taking the Trouble” features master blues guitarist Keb’ Mo’. It’s not a particularly bluesy tune, but that lonesome guitar sound is a valuable addition. (The repeating riff’s melodic similarities with Rufus Wainwright’s “Barcelona,” recorded four years before in 1998, always strike me.)
Browne’s most recent album is Standing in the Breach (2014). While his absorption of politics still flavors many of his songs, he also deals with other topics. Like love.
Although most people think of Woody Guthrie primarily as a folk singer, he also wrote lots of free-verse poetry. Browne and bassist Rob Wasserman have set to music an excerpt from Guthrie’s touching and intimate 1943 poem, “You Know the Night.” The song has a driving rhythm pleasingly reminiscent of Johnny Cash.
Maybe it’s Browne’s age, but he finally seems willing to let in a glimmer of happiness.