Jackson Browne Steve Simels - Essay

Steve Simels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the face of it, nothing would seem less likely right now than a gritty, unsentimental, insightful revitalization of one of rock's most played-out themes—the psychic travails of Life on the Road—by a singer/songwriter whose previous recorded Laments have verged perilously (to echo Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau) on mere Whines. But clearly Jackson Browne, heretofore recognized as the Mellow Sound's Premier Metaphysical Pretty Face, is toughening up his act, and "Running on Empty," his latest album for Asylum, has both the real rocker's raw-edged sensibility and a film maker's unflinching reportorial eye.

The film reference is not gratuitous…. [The] whole structure of the thing recalls cinema verité documentaries à la the Maysles Brothers. It was recorded live in a variety of settings, both in and out of concert halls, the apparent idea being to convey some sense of how a touring musician lives and how this life reflects upon the way he plays, to portray the alternately numbing (Cocaine, complete with somewhat updated lyrics) and inspiring (The Load-Out) effects of musical communication as a vocation. It's a concept fraught with the perils of mawkishness and self-pity, but it is brought off sensationally, even the potentially hokey stuff…. Truth to tell, his records have always had a superficial patina of "prettiness" that undercut what he seemed to want to get across. Here, however, his regular recording band works out with a vengeance, and the raw clatter adds a weight and an authority to his lyrics that the relative perfection of the sounds on his studio efforts never could.

In short, "Running on Empty" represents the work of an artist newly matured and unafraid to take risks, a breakthrough comparable to Neil Young's post-"Harvest" realization that the wonders of studio technology do not necessarily provide a path to Total Enlightment. And, finally, it gives the most resonant and interesting answers to all the questions implicit in the Byrds' oversimplified So You Wanna Be a Rock-and-Roll Star? It's a marvelous, compelling piece of work that has converted this rather halfhearted admirer into a total, unabashed partisan. Phonorealism has never before sounded this good. (pp. 83-4)

Steve Simels, "Jackson Browne's 'Running on Empty': Mature, Chance-taking Phonorealism," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1978 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 40, No. 4, April, 1978, pp. 83-4.