After just a handful of listens, I’d have to call Jackson Browne’s Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2 an unqualified success - if not an outright masterpiece.
Browne has come up with a great concept with this set of albums, and at this point I just wish that he’d release them more frequently (Vol. 1 was three years ago). They’re probably for fans only, as each features previously released songs, in (per the title) solo acoustic format – either guitar, or piano. And at this late date, it’s highly unlikely that acoustic versions of old songs is going to sway someone over to Jackson’s side.
But they expose a side of Browne that heretofore was unknown (at least to me), or at least little known – the guy has a great sense of humor, and knows how to apply exactly the right amount of self-deprecation. On Vol. 1, Browne told a hilarious story about the time he sang “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and realized halfway through that he didn’t exactly agree with what the lyrics were saying about relationships (you’ve got to hear it to appreciate it). On Vol. 2, he makes some amusing comments about the fact that the bulk of his work could be viewed as somewhat depressing (at one point he comments, “I could sing you a tender song filled with despair, or a weary song laced with hope…what’s your pleasure?), and throughout the show achieves an easy back-and-forth banter with the audience.
What Vol. 2 really demonstrates is that Browne’s later work – which I’ve always thought was underrated – is just as good, if not better, than the songs which made him famous in the first place. With a handful of exceptions, the songs on Vol. 2 are from albums released well past his high-water mark of popularity, the Running on Empty era. Songs like “The Night Inside Me,” “Enough of the Night,” and “My Stunning Mystery Companion” all gain something in the translation from full-band recording to solo performance, almost as if the songs can finally take a deep breath, no longer constrained by the borders of an arranged performance.
The highlight of the album is the spectacular triple crown of “Sky Blue and Black,” “In the Shape Of A Heart,” and “Alive in the World.” I’ve always thought those songs were among his very best, and if anything, they sound more powerful here than ever before. A close second is “Redneck Friend,” which proves that you don’t need a band to be a rockin’ fool.
The great critic Paul Nelson once referred to Jackson Browne as “our finest practicing romantic.” On this album, Browne is that and more. A romantic, a little world weary perhaps; but completely at ease with himself and more astute than ever about what constitutes his strengths. I just hope I don’t have to wait three years for Vol. 3.