Timothy White

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898

[Browne] writes and sings untiringly and without restraint about all the broken promises, the canceled appointments, the quintessential assumptions that have fallen through—all the pathetic kinks in the human condition.

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It's been four albums and a lot of arid miles since the 28-year-old Browne first took a bow "Under the Falling Sky" on his debut Jackson Browne "waterbag" lp. More than ever, the leading songwriter of the '70s sounds like he could use a cool drink and some companionship—but is this the sort of person you'd want as a friend? Born in Germany and bruised in Greenwich Village circa '67, the brilliant balladeer is passing the last remnants of his 20s in Los Angeles, one of the richest, most class-, status- and self-conscious cities in the world. Also one of the most disposable. It is in this No Deposit/No Return atmosphere that he continues to rage against the creeping, crippling lethargy it breeds, simultaneously devouring and disdaining all the free time he apparently has to scrutinize emotions and exhaust ideas….

Jackson Browne writes songs that are often incandescently poignant and offer bold, lucid insights into the reasons why people so frequently fail each other. But the songs always arrive in groups of ten or more; after a while, their thematic consistency raises the more depressing possibility that there's a carry-over into his day-to-day existence. If so, what we're getting in his records is a portrait-in-progress rather than a perspective.

The problem with Jackson Browne is that his messages are so personal and direct that they transcend their medium and must eventually be judged either friend or foe. I followed the man as far as Late for the Sky but The Pretender, both as an album and a (mythic?) individual, is no friend of mine. (p. 68)

After struggling through some fits of hopefulness, Browne has found new exhilaration in his fatalistic instincts, suggesting on The Pretender's opening track that "Whatever it is you might think you have, you have nothing to lose." The song eventually ends on an up note that mentions "eternity" but it comes out pat and unconvincing. This world, as we know it, is quite finite, and reverence for eternity leaves me cold. But life for Browne has become "The Fuse," which is relentlessly "burning, and the world is turning" and the singer seems enamored of the possibility of impending explosion. This disturbing attitude provides most of the impetus for what could be Jackson's finest hour and, not coincidentally, his most self-destructive.

Dating as far back as his brief sojourn (in 1967) with the original Dark Lady, Nico, Browne has been lifting a magnifying glass to his own archeology the way that Gordon Liddy used to hold his palm over a candle flame—denying his own discomfort in order to maximize whatever responses his actions might elicit. But any caprice becomes a matter of conviction if you do it often enough. He's delved as deeply and with as much prosaic calculation as he could muster while making his own probing surgery. These rites, however imprudent, produced some of the most eloquently introspective songwriting of the last decade, but it's become harder to ignore all that nasty scar tissue…. Jackson has suffered considerably in the past few months and the cloak of resignation that covers this album could be a reaction to the recent apparent suicide of his wife, Phyllis—although Asylum says the album was for the most part completed prior to her death. This seems likely; nowhere on the album is there a song that could, obviously at least, be construed as a consideration of the tragedy and yet the overall tone is pessimistic enough to indicate that such matters [and] questions were on his mind.

Many of our best songwriters, Paul Simon in particular, complain that critics take an overly literal approach when reviewing their records. But to do otherwise in the case of Jackson Browne would be tantamount to ignoring him, since he seldom ventures out without wearing his battered soul on his sleeve—constantly consulting it as if it were a wristwatch. (pp. 68-9)

Still in all, this is Jackson Browne's most cogent statement, but the grandeur of his anguish makes me feel he's gone too far; the mournful picture he paints is so stark and unyielding that it saps most of the potential for enjoyment. Like Paul Simon's "Peace Like a River," John Lennon's "Mother," or Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," testimony this personal can turn on itself if its harrowing tone isn't tempered and defined by a humanistic ethos.

Unlike Simon, Lennon and Young, Browne fails to provide one. Rather, he seems to be saying that the only refuge for someone who lacks the power or the presence of mind to get out of his own way is something he ominously terms "sleep's dark and silent gate."

With his earlier efforts in mind, I began this record assuming that I'd be breaking bread with Jackson Browne, but halfway through it I got the feeling that I was chewing tinfoil. They say that nothing overflows that can continue to drip; I hope so. It's like a song I can hear, playing right in my ear, that I can't sing. But I can't help listening. (p. 69)

Timothy White, "'Pretender' Pleads Nolo Contendere," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1977 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January, 1977, pp. 68-9.

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