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 heartbreakingly romantic line on the record. The singer is speaking directly to the woman he's been falling in love with throughout the LP. You can sense that he's awkwardly trying to breach the gulf between them. And when he hitches up his pants and says, "See—I always figured I was going to meet somebody here," you know that Los Angeles' coolest, smartest urban cowboy is just as vulnerable and ridiculous as you and I. Browne, a romantic to the end, makes such long-shot faith seem not only possible but necessary.
Hold Out is a trade-off of such moments. Duff lines war with taut ones, puffed-up commonplaces with perceptions…. Most of the time, Browne loses. Lyrically, Hold Out is probably the weakest record he's ever made—an album on which all of the big decisions are carefully considered, but many of the small ones backfire. What we have is a song cycle with scarcely a single tune that has the moral imagination, pop grace or writerly precision of Browne's best material. In the end, Hold Out is simply a set of moods that don't quite catch.
On paper, the LP makes sense, and you can almost imagine Browne's preproduction notes. A circle game, taking up where The Pretender left off but reversing the order. From antiromantic breakup to romantic renewal. Semiautobiographical. About loss and fear, ties that bind and ties that bond. An exploration of the pull of work, stardom and bittersweet expectations. Images that recur from composition to composition, but songs that stand on their own. (pp. 47-8)
So what went wrong? Of all things, the writing. Jackson Browne has never been as banal, sloppy, fake or pretentious as he is here. Hold Out forces us to be editors and fill its margins with questions…. [There's] the mock literariness ("Reaching into the heart of the darkness"), the Dick-and-Jane sociology ("The folks are home playing Beat the Clock"), the Hallmark card from the Mount ("Hold a place for the human race"). Please avoid.
With the exception of the title track, there's hardly a song on Hold Out without one of these time bombs. And if more don't go off, it's because the music represents a real advance: Browne's concrete version of Los Angeles rock & roll….
Despite its rock & roll accomplishments, however, what's missing from Hold Out is much larger: humor, humility, detail, lightness of touch. Browne has been Hollywood rock's moral conscience and intellectual spokesman for so long—and has performed his duties so completely—that it's probably taken something out of him. Hold Out has the feel of someone desperately trying to break through, to make a Big Statement: every line inflated with Meaning, each song Significant. When, in "Hold Out," the artist is offhand, it comes as such a surprise that your heart flies…. (p. 48)
Still, I miss the Jackson Browne who felt free enough to say "I don't know what...
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happens when people die" in "For a Dancer," which is surely preferable to the piling up of polemic sorrow in "Of Missing Persons." I miss the singer who spoke plainly in "These Days."… And most of all, I miss the man who could write a rock & roll number with the directness of "Running on Empty," and not weigh us down with the social science fiction of "Boulevard." Unfortunately, the old Jackson Browne can rarely be found onHold Out. So we'll have to give the new one a chance. (pp. 48-9)
Kit Rachlis, "Jackson Browne's 'Hold Out' Doesn't Quite Hold Up," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1980; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 325, September 4, 1980, pp. 47-9.