Jackson Browne Critical Essays

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.