He probably didn’t event it himself, but I’m borrowing this concept from Tosy and Cosh. I promise, to all four of my faithful readers, that this will be the last Jackson Browne post for a while.
10. “The Pretender.” There was a part of me that wanted to leave this song off the list. From time to time, I think that it’s almost too perfect, that it’s more like a perfect pastiche of a great Jackson Browne song than it is a great Jackson Browne song. But every time I hear it, I want to turn up the stereo, especially when he gets to the lines “I’m going to find myself a girl/Who can show me what laughter means/And we’ll fill in the missing colors/In each other’s paint by number dreams.” And as Dave Marsh wrote in the liner notes to The Very Best of Jackson Browne, “it’s arguably not the greatest song he’s ever written, but it probably gets closer to the core of his vision than any other.” It seems silly to leave it off.
9. “Alive in the World.” Browne’s post-1993 albums of original material (I’m Alive, Looking East, The Naked Ride Home) are all somewhat underrated; it’s almost if a significant part of his audience (both popular and critical) turned away from him after his political side became the dominant factor in his work of the previous decade. With some notable exceptions, I find his “songs of the heart” more effective and moving than his political work. In a way, “Alive in the World” is both, and it succeeds on all levels. I’m surprised it hasn’t shown up on someone’s campaign trail:
With its beauty and its cruelty
With its heartbreak and its joy
With it constantly giving birth to life and to forces that destroy
And the infinite power of change
Alive in the world
8. “The Load Out/Stay.” Along with Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” “The Load-Out” is one of the great songs about life on the road:
But the band’s on the bus and they’re waiting to go
We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
Or Detroit, I don’t know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same
We just pass the time in our hotel rooms
And wander ‘round backstage
Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd
And we remember why we came
Coupling the song with Maurice Williams’ “Stay” was pure genius, and together the two songs comprise what may be the all-time greatest show-closer.
7. “For Everyman.” In her Rolling Stone review of For Everyman, Janet Maslin wrote that Browne’s work was “a unique fusion of West Coast casualness and East Coast paranoia, easygoing slang and painstaking precision, child’s eye romanticizing and adult’s eye acceptance.” Lyrically, Browne arrived on the scene as a complete artist; the main weakness of his first two albums is their relatively dull musical landscape. On this song, Browne began to stretch out a bit.
6. “Redneck Friend.” OK, there may be a bit of guilty pleasure which drives this one so far into the Top Ten. But hey, I never get tired of it, and it’s a great rocker.
5. “Sky Blue and Black.” This is not a song Browne could have written in the early 1970s; partly because of his advanced emotional maturity, but primarily because the musical chops he had in his back pocket in 1993 simply weren’t there in 1972. It’s a complex song, both lyrically and musically, and it plumbs the depths of Browne’s emotions like no song before it.
4. “Your Bright Baby Blues.” This is the classic example of a song that I wasn’t able to appreciate on release, but came to love later. My favorite sets of lines:
No matter where I am I can’t help feeling
I’m just a day away from where I want to be
You watch yourself from the sidelines
Like your life is a game you don’t mind playing
To keep yourself amused
I don’t mean to be cruel, baby
But you’re looking confused
3. “Late for the Sky.” See post below.
2. “In the Shape of a Heart.” Simply magnificent, and perhaps the best song ever written about the vagaries of human relationships, and how hard people try to make those relationships work. A lyrical and musical powerhouse, from beginning to end.
People speak of love
Don’t know what they’re thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of a life and the living
And try to find the word for forgiving
You keep it up, you try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know the shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart
1. “Running on Empty.” Without question, one of the greatest songs in the history of rock and roll, and one that has as much in common with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as it does with any of the other songs on this list. As Dave Marsh wrote:
It’s hard to think of another record that speaks so forthrightly to and about a world that was disintegrating before its own eyes in a cycle of denial and repression that took the shape of rampant hedonism…I think of a roster of Browne’s friends that might include Lowell George, who overdosed and died, Warren Zevon, rehabbed and rehabbed and held together with main human strength and raw talent, and David Crosby, surviving massive cocaine addiction through a period of imprisonment but ballooned to three hundred pounds in compensation. In that crowd, “Running on Empty” was less a metaphor than a prophesy, a post-Woodstock “Dead Man’s Curve.”
And behind it all, the classic lines:
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I just don’t know how to tell you all
Just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to
To pull me through
Looking into their eyes I seem them running too