Jackson Browne Stephen Holden - Essay

Stephen Holden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 romantic idealism and the pain of adjustment from youthful narcissism to adult survival as Browne has in this album. Late for the Sky is the autobiography of his young manhood.

The album's eight loosely constructed narratives rely for much of their impact upon stunning sections of aphoristic verse, whose central images, the antinomies of water and sand, reality and dreams, sky and road, inextricably connect them. Browne's melodic style, though limited, serves his ideas brilliantly. He generally avoids the plaintive harmonies of southern California rock ballads for a starker, more eloquent musical diction derived from Protestant hymns. Likewise his open-ended poetry achieves power from the nearly religious intensity that accumulates around the central motifs….

On side one, Browne tells bluntly about his personal conflict between fantasy and reality in erotic relationships, struggling with his quest for idyllic bliss….

The second side of the album describes the precariousness of the journey, as Browne's sense of personal tragedy metamorphoses into a larger social apprehension…. "For A Dancer" … is one of the album's two masterpieces, a meditation on death that harks back to "Song For Adam."… But "For A Dancer" is not a lament; it calls for joyful procreation to combat metaphysical terror. Browne's graceful lyric, as fine as any he's written, finds its counterpart in the music…. "Before The Deluge," the album's summary cut, brings together in a comprehensive social context the themes of the rest of the album. A march for three voices,… the song evokes the spiritual malaise following Woodstock…. (p. 61)

Stephen Holden, "Manchild in the Promised Land," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 173, November 7, 1974, pp. 61-2.