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.
Running on Empty. I wish it were an ironic title. Browne's life, he says, is lived in large part on the road. It's a rock 'n roll cliche, but one looks to the smart people for new views of common ideas—and the classic road album has yet to be written. Browne hasn't got it here.
Jackson's four previous records were solitary affairs. He was exploring himself, with little or no outside help. He judged others by their effect on him. Now his life seems changed. He has found, or created, a family with which to travel and live. His touring company—the band, roadies, lighting and sound men, business people—serves as the nucleus and the audience as the invited relatives. Where his life alone was once all he needed for material, now he's got all these voices to consider. There's a conscious sense of consensus to the album…. And with this consensus comes a lowering of standards.
It seems as though Jackson Browne is trying to produce a true family album. Songs are recorded in rehearsal rooms, hotel rooms, on the bus. Getting everybody in the picture is fine in concept—all contribute to the scene from which Browne has traditionally written—but not everyone is a craftsman, and in his attempt to involve his group he loses touch with the brilliant language which made him so very special to begin with. His collaborations have little care for words, much attention to bathetic detail…. The scenes are real enough—in "Rosie" the drummer steals a backstage girl from a roadie; in "The Load-Out" the crew is packing it all in—but neither words nor music elevate them above the obvious. And that capacity is Jackson Browne's magic….
Jackson's style is artful sentiments sung as if from a diary; The Pretender saw him bash his way out of that style for the first time. Despite the fact that he was admitting to his own "surrender," he opened an emotional channel which had been tightly closed before and seems to have been shut down again. It's a shame. Was he embarrassed, or unwilling to follow the [Bruce] Springsteen lead any further?
There are several fine songs on Running on Empty…. But even these songs could have been recorded more compellingly. What is worse, more than half the album is either throwaway material or filler. This is a Jackson Browne album we're talking about; even one dismissible song is unthinkable!
There is the sense that Jackson has hit a cold spell. Certainly he has supreme pride in his work; either he is pinioned by personality and unable to rescue his songs, or he has leaned too heavily on people who are not writers. Compadres may be counted on for perspective, for a parallel view of the road, but Browne should work out the language by himself.
Running on Empty is another installment in the Jackson Browne epic. He remains a fascinating, persuasive character. The album may well be an accurate recounting of what he's going through right now; unfortunately, it's not much fun to listen to.
Peter Knobler, "Jackson Browne: The Road Not Taken," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1978 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March, 1978, p. 69.