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 bounded by contradiction. (p. 62)
The focus [of his work] is always lyrical. The arrangements and performances are successful precisely to the degree that they bring our full attention to the emotions and ideas he articulates.
And it is Browne the lyricist who is often taken as a symbol, and most often misunderstood. He has been condemned as a rampant sexist, and with good reason: cowriting the Eagles' chauvinistic anthem, "Take It Easy," was inexcusable. But his romantic perspective is considerably more complicated. His affairs are never casual, not even when he's dismissive, as in "Linda Paloma." And in "Here Come Those Tears Again," he uses his confusion to greatest advantage. The role of the singer isn't clear: is he anticipating the return of a lover who has jilted him, or is he imagining the reaction of a lover he's just jilted? Perhaps both. For this song, at least, his vision of love turns on something rare: friendship.
Browne may also be the apocalyptic visionary, the questing hero in search of the Big Bang of final romance that his hardcore cult sees him as. But as someone who's always has reservations about admiring him, I find that Jackson Browne touches me most deeply when he's most specific, least cosmic. Writing about mortality and parental roles, he is as mature as any writer in rock, and more cogent than most. The metaphysics are there, all right, but it is the characters and experiences on which they are based that make them compelling.
The most striking songs on The Pretender are concerned with death and parenthood, subjects not necessarily unrelated (see the earlier "For a Dancer"). Often, his apocalyptic imagery is merely a way of getting at his feelings of mortality—the crumbling towers of Babylon in "The Fuse" are as much about the inevitable erosion of time as anything else. And parenthood is seen as a symbol of the middle-class life he has experienced: it's both a joy and a trap. In "Daddy's Tune," he reaches out to his father, long ago alienated, in order to share with him the turmoil of advising his son in "The Only Child." In a way, this is his ultimate dilemma—to be a father, or to be a son. And his ultimate triumph is to realize and reconcile the parent and the child in each of us.
Such song-to-song concordances are not unusual. Lines and images overlap: the drum in "The Fuse" and "Daddy's Tune," and the opening lines of "Your Bright Baby Blues" and "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate," which is about both the horror of a marriage gone bad and man at his most mortal…. And all of these cross-references come rushing to a climax in "The Pretender."
"The Pretender" is a breakthrough. Browne has always had traces of cynicism in his writing, but about romance he...
(The entire section is 895 words.)