Study Guide

Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne Essay - Critical Essays

Browne, Jackson

Introduction

Jackson Browne 1950–

American songwriter, singer, and musician.

Browne's work is noted for poetic lyrics which express widely-felt moods and emotions. Although Browne's lyrics are intensely personal, his ability to universalize problems results in his wide appeal. Youthful uncertainty and the quest for spiritual identity, the central themes in Browne's work, are supported by recurring images of childhood and death.

Browne's songs were popularized by various artists before he gained a reputation as a singer/songwriter with his own recordings. His first album, Jackson Browne, was hailed by critics as brilliant and evocative, fulfilling the promise of his earlier writing. One song, "Jamaica Say You Will," is a straightforward narrative written in first-person singular, the style Browne uses for many of his most effective songs. The lyrics throughout the album are memorable for giving fresh meaning to overworked clichés. The Pretender is the story of Browne and his deceased wife, Phyllis. In a more general sense, the album concerns the individual in contemporary society. The songs analyze the human need to reconcile longing for love with the desire for material possessions. The Pretender, in its exploration of mortality and the inevitable passage of time, confirmed Browne's position as a major rock poet.

The lyrics on Browne's next releases lack the quality and polish of his previous efforts. Running on Empty is a live album which chronicles the life of a band on the road; the style of the songs is consciously documentary. Although all the material is new, the metaphor of the road, the album's controlling concept, appears throughout Browne's work. Some critics feel the lyrics are no more than commonplace, while other critics view the album as the compelling, mature product of an accomplished songwriter. Hold Out has received mostly unfavorable reviews. Even though the music makes advances in lightweight rock and roll, the lyrics are considered the weakest Browne has written for any album. The moral imagination, graceful style, and precision which characterize Browne's other albums are lacking here, giving the impression that Browne has nothing to say.

Browne's albums are an ongoing commentary on his own life, and each work, including the least successful, has its place within this framework. His following is still rather small when compared with other rock and roll stars, but his moving lyrics and accessible melodies assure an increasing audience.

Bud Scoppa

It's not often that a single album is sufficient to place a new performer among the first rank of recording artists. Jackson Browne's long-awaited debut album chimes in its author with the resounding authority of [Van Morrison's] Astral Weeks, [Rod Stewart's] Gasoline Alley, or [Neil Young's] After the Gold Rush. Its awesome excellence causes one to wonder why, with Browne's reputation as an important songwriter established as far back as 1968, this album was so long in coming…. Whatever the reason, Jackson Browne … is more than worth the years it took to be hatched….

The songs themselves reveal Browne as a classic romanticist; they're possessed of that same earnest intensity found in his voice, and their prevailing moods are so strong that singers as diverse as Tom Rush, Johnny Darrell, Nico, and Clarence White can sing them without significantly altering their tone or substance. Browne's songs, no matter who sings them, seem to have a life of their own….

"Jamaica, Say You Will," the opening track, is an exquisite love song, and it perfectly embodies Browne's writing and performing approach. This narrative of the relationship between the singer and Jamaica, the daughter of a long-absent sailor, vividly confirms Richard Goldstein's 1968 perception that "Jackson writes with rocky seacoasts in his head."…

While the music sets the tone, Browne deftly tells the tale, his imagery charged with vivid suggestion….

What's astounding about this record is that there are a half dozen tracks of "Jamaica" beauty ("Song for Adam" and "From Silver Lake" are especially affecting), and none of the ten songs is any less than brilliant and lovely. Each has the immediacy of a touch, due in part to Jackson's first-person approach.

The music is as direct and fluid as the lyrical content….

Jackson Browne's sensibility is romantic in the best sense of the term: his songs are capable of generating a highly charged, compelling atmosphere throughout, and—just as important—of sustaining that pitch in the listener's mind long after they've ended.

Bud Scoppa, "Records: 'Jackson Browne'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 103, March 2, 1972, p. 58.

Michael Watts

["Jackson Browne" is Browne's] first album, and it's good; so good, in fact, that it establishes him not just as a versatile songwriter but as an artist of major stature. For a debut album Browne could not have wished to achieve a more profound impact. Broadly speaking, his songs are romantic, heart-in-the-mouth affairs, but structured with such subtlety, earnestness and intensity of feeling that their cumulative effect is rather like a return to innocence…. On an album which is uniformly gorgeous there are several stand-outs. "Jamaica Say You Will" opens the first side and also encapsulates the form of his writing…. The song embodies his compositional approach in that the emphasis is on writing a song through the first person singular and his fondness is for straightforward narration; he keeps his lines very uncluttered, eschewing obscurantist tendencies. Thus "Song for Adam" is about two friends who finally go their separate ways until one day the narrator learns that his boyhood buddy is dead. Again, the story-line is beautifully clear, the effect wistful and moving…. Altogether, "Jackson Browne" should do for Jackson Browne a whole lot more than "Neil Young" did for Neil Young. If it's not this album, it will be the next. But it should be this one.

Michael Watts, "Do Say Browne," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), March 25, 1972, p. 15.

Geoff Brown

[Browne's] debut set I loved—"Jamaica Say You Will," "Song For Adam" and, especially, "Doctor My Eyes" and "Rock Me On The Water" were superb songs. The majority of those songs were the up-tempo part of the album—Jackson's rather mono-toned vocals became depressingly morbid on the slow songs. The same conditions prevail on his second album ["For Everyman"]. Both sides open with a fast 'un. The Eagles' hit "Take It Easy" (co-written by Browne and Glenn Frey) starts side one; the excellent "Red Neck Friend" gets side two rolling…. After the opener there's a rather tacky feeling to side one—a reliance on the slow-paced and the maudlin. On side two the pace varies more and the songs counterpoint each other the better for it…. Jackson takes "Sing My Songs To Me" back down to a minor mood … which segues into the stronger, title track which ends the side. As the two opening tracks on the first side had also been blended into one the effect is of placing quotation marks around the album. Between the quotes Jackson makes no astounding statements; just lays down his melodies and lyrics and leaves philosophising fairly well alone. A solid enough album but not as freshly appealing as his debut.

Geoff Brown, "Albums: 'For Everyman'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), November 10, 1973, p. 28.

Jerry Leichtling

For years, Jackson Browne wrote beautiful songs, other people sang them and Jackson took his own sweet time about recording an album. Two years ago his first record was released, so beautiful, ineffably sad and movingly perfect for gentle love on rainy nights. He was instantly revealed. And now ["For Everyman"].

Jackson is more than sweet, alive in dream ways and held childhood. He sings of childhood; the gap of retrograde motion, the life motion that causes us still to be so much of what we once were, reaching towards that more real past where experience held growth and the strings were tied together. Jackson's first record said it in "I Am a Child in These Hills" and "Rock Me on the Water."

Here, now, most directly in "I Thought I Was a Child." Where before "I am," now "I thought I was." Two years later and gone, grown….

The songs are terrific, some tunes occasionally too similar in tone but nevertheless at the heart of many things….

It's soft rock and Jackson's voice is thin and reedy. But it's a remarkably conceived and executed work, a testament, a manifest creation that moves logically, consistently and beautifully towards whatever's at the end of Jackson's road. To journey this way is a privilege.

Jerry Leichtling, "Records: 'For Everyman'," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1974 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January, 1974, p. 78.

Henry Edwards

[On "For Everyman" Jackson Browne] presents a moody catalogue in which nothing is quite right: Life doesn't make too much sense; love and work don't quite work out; there is meaning, but not enough meaning, in the experience of being alive. Browne's melodies are not terribly fresh; his lyrics are not particularly original. But the tone of his work is perfectly suited to those overpowering and ambivalent adolescent moods that are so chic when one is of college age. While his work collapses under scrutiny, Browne—much like such novels as [J. D. Salinger's] The Catcher in the Rye—is an effective expression of the more romantic phases of the growing-up process.

Henry...

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Stephen Holden

Like Browne's two previous albums, Late for the Sky contains no lyric sheet. The three or four hours required to make a full transcription will, however, be well worth the effort for anyone interested in discovering lyric genius. I can't think of another writer who merges with such natural grace and fluidity his private and public personas in a voice that is morally compelling yet noncoercive.

Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne's third … album, is his most mature, conceptually unified work to date. Its overriding theme: the exploration of romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse. No contemporary male singer/songwriter has dealt so honestly and deeply with the vulnerability of...

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David Spiwack

It's hard not to love Jackson Browne, even if you're not a teenage girl who can't believe how cute he is. Because the power of his songs extends beyond their compact, bittersweet appeal. They consistently express moods and emotions many of us have felt but couldn't conjure up the words to describe. Yet there is something about [Late for the Sky] that irks me. Something about what Jackson does and where he is going, or better, where he is not going, is beginning to show. (p. 74)

[This] recognizable persona comes across in the plaintive tone of his weighty statements that often border dangerously on the whine. And after a while, too much of this stuff is depressing. The combined effect of his...

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JACK McDONOUGH

It seems safe [now], if somewhat brash, to make a claim: Jackson Browne is the most important American songwriter since Bob Dylan and is perhaps as true a voice of the 70's as we are going to hear.

The claim requires apologias on several fronts. The first is that Browne is nowhere near so loose, prolific or wide-ranging as Dylan, and we still have not seen all that much of his work yet….

The second apologia is to recognize that "The 70's" is a vague and amorphous term….

[This] decade does have its feel, defined, as all eras, by the overriding political and economic realities of the society. Much of the tone of the 70's is a result of the accommodation of...

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Timothy White

[Browne] writes and sings untiringly and without restraint about all the broken promises, the canceled appointments, the quintessential assumptions that have fallen through—all the pathetic kinks in the human condition.

It's been four albums and a lot of arid miles since the 28-year-old Browne first took a bow "Under the Falling Sky" on his debut Jackson Browne "waterbag" lp. More than ever, the leading songwriter of the '70s sounds like he could use a cool drink and some companionship—but is this the sort of person you'd want as a friend? Born in Germany and bruised in Greenwich Village circa '67, the brilliant balladeer is passing the last remnants of his 20s in Los Angeles, one of the...

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Dave Marsh

Like most performers who transcend their genre, Jackson Browne often seems more a symbol than an artist. Singer/songwriter fans find in him the fulfillment of the style's promise: Browne's songs really do merge poetic vision and rock. But there are also those … who find the genre symptomatic of all of rock's current weaknesses. Browne is the epitome of everything they find disagreeable, both lyrically and musically.

It is odd that Browne is surrounded by such certainty of opinion, for ambivalence is the hallmark of his style. He has managed to make confusion an advantage, partly because he never hedges: he knows he doesn't know. The Pretender, the most complete development of his music, is...

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Peter Knobler

Jackson Browne is his own best chronicler. The profile has yet to be written which reveals him as incisively, or with as much love for language, as Browne does himself. His struggles with love, mortality, innocence and the fall from grace have rung so true, and been described with such real yet elevated phrases, that he has become a man-child pioneer. The life and situations he has described have been close enough to a middle-class universal for both the sensitive and the banal to feel he knows their personal songs. He is his own subject and, to this point, his life has been sufficiently interesting to support a running, five-album autobiography. He has enjoyed the strength to show his vulnerability.

...

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Paul Nelson

Whether or not he knows it, [Browne's] been writing about highways and their alternate routes since his beginnings, so the subject matter and thematic concerns of Running on Empty aren't all that different from those of his first four LPs. But the approach is. This time, Browne has consciously created a documentary, as brightly prosaic as it is darkly poetic, with a keen eye for the mundane as well as the magical. Running on Empty is a live album of new material about life on the road as conceived and recorded by a band of touring musicians in the places they spend most of their time (onstage, backstage, in hotel rooms, even on the bus). Since there are two separate concepts here, the audience gets an...

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Steve Simels

On the face of it, nothing would seem less likely right now than a gritty, unsentimental, insightful revitalization of one of rock's most played-out themes—the psychic travails of Life on the Road—by a singer/songwriter whose previous recorded Laments have verged perilously (to echo Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau) on mere Whines. But clearly Jackson Browne, heretofore recognized as the Mellow Sound's Premier Metaphysical Pretty Face, is toughening up his act, and "Running on Empty," his latest album for Asylum, has both the real rocker's raw-edged sensibility and a film maker's unflinching reportorial eye.

The film reference is not gratuitous…. [The] whole structure of the thing...

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Anthony Fawcett

["The Road And The Sky"] written by Jackson Browne over four years ago, was the catalyst for an idea which evolved into Running On Empty, a live album and conceptual statement about the physical and psychic consequences of being on tour. It is an unusual and powerful work. All the songs are new, all of them except one are about life on the road, and they were recorded in all the places where life on the road is lived—in motel rooms, on buses, in backstage dressing rooms, as well as on stage itself. The seamless fashion in which the motel songs and the stage songs are fused together is part of the magic.

The theme has been continued in each cycle of Jackson's development…. But it was his...

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Kit Rachlis

Everything that's right and everything that's wrong about Hold Out … can be found in its climax: the spoken confession at the end of the last cut, "Hold On Hold Out." Eight minutes long, "Hold On Hold Out" is the LP's anthem, its farewell address and would-be summation. (p. 47)

It's a measure of both the grandiosity and simplicity of Browne's intentions that this album comes down to his saying—without the aid of melody or harmony—"I love you." And it's a measure of Hold Out's failure that these words sound flat, forced, even selfish: a meaningful private act made embarrassing by its public expression. Also, the words are a letdown, since they follow the funniest, most...

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Noel Coppage

Jackson Browne does not rock out; Jackson Browne meanders eloquently—sometimes to a big beat and loud guitars, but not so as to cover the words. Jackson Browne believes in words. That's one of the things I like about him. But in his new album, "Hold Out," he seems determined to rock harder than he has before, and though the words still aren't covered with instruments, they're affected indirectly.

The desire to rock harder has led him to several decisions—mostly involving shortening his usually snaking, convoluted lines and opting for simplified melodies—that not only take the emphasis (pressure?) off the lyrics to some degree but contribute to an overall impression that he didn't have...

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