Thursday, October 02, 2008

Jackson the Conqueror

The first thing you see is the cover. A striking black-and-white photo of a bearded Jackson, made even more so by the fact that there's much more salt than pepper in that patch of facial hair. And then you open the lyric booklet, and see the photo of Jackson with his band, and notice that he looks to be the only person in the photo without a smile, or the trace of one, on his face. Everything about the expression on his face says "tired." And then there's the album title, Time the Conqueror, and you think, yeah, this is it, Jackson is feeling really old, and is ready to dispense a little wisdom on aging, and his outlook on life. Part of you wonders whether that is an entirely good thing, but you know that some artists deserve the benefit of the doubt, and deserve to be rewarded with the faith of buying their work without the hint of any prior listen.

There's definitely an element of Jackson feeling old on the album, and after a few listens it's not hard to figure out why he's feeling that way. He's tired of the same old arguments, and tired of having to put himself out there pointing out the injustices in American life today, when it could be that what he'd really like to do is go down to Cuba, and have a little fun with some friends.

"Going Down To Cuba" is one of the album's songs, and when I first heard it on The Colbert Report, I wasn't that impressed. But in the context of what is a pretty angry album, it fits perfectly, and I've come to really enjoy the song and Browne's relaxed performance. And the lyrics demonstrate that yes, Jackson does have a sense of humor:

I'm going down to Cuba with my band/We're going to formulate a plan/Whereby we obtain that "cultural" permission/If I told you once, I told you tres/It'll put a smile on your face/To see a Chevrolet with a Soviet transmission

The album's moral center is comprised of two aggressively political songs - "The Drums of War," and "Where Were You." I'm on record as having stated that Jackson's political work is not his greatest strength, and on Time the Conqueror he goes 1-for-2. "The Drums of War" is about the war in Iraq, and represents Browne at his most strident:

Who gives the orders, orders to torture?/Who gets to no bid contract the future?/ Who lies, then bombs, then calls it an error?/Who makes a fortune from fighting terror?/Who is the enemy trying to crush us?/Who is the enemy of truth and justice?/Who is the enemy of speech and freedom?/Where are the courts, now that we need them?/Why is impeachment not on the table?/We better stop them while we are able/Roll out the drums of war

Ouch. Please excuse me for a moment, while I put an ice-pack on my noggin from Jackson beating me over the head with this song. And it's not that I necessarily disagree with anything that he's written here, though "why is impeachment not on the table?" strikes me as hopelessly (and perhaps dangerously) naive. But there isn't an ounce of subtlety in the song, and frankly it's not very interesting, musically. And it's not that I don't think the Bush Administration deserves the bashing. But given the choice, I'll opt for something like Bruce Springsteen's "Magic" every day of the week over this approach.

On the other hand, I find "Where Were You," about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to be a powerful and utterly convincing polemic. For one thing, it's a much stronger musical artifact - I liked the song before I had any idea what it was about, which is always a good thing. The other thing impacting my thinking may be that I've just returned from New Orleans, where I was attending a conference at which one of the keynote speakers referred to the Katrina aftermath as "ethnic cleansing," and the other drew a moral parallel between the aftermath of Katrina and the Holocaust. Now, those are two very powerful statements, and frankly I'm still trying to get my head around both of them, but they had the impact of putting the issue at the forefront of my mind. So when I read these lyrics:

Where were you in the social order?/The Lower Nine or a hotel in the Quarter/ Which side of the border between rich and poor?/Where were you going to evacuate to?/Assuming there was any way to/Where, if you didn't own a car?/ Where were you?

I know that was Browne is singing was absolutely true. All you have to do is walk down Bourbon Street on a busy weekend to realize that the "border between rich and poor" is vast.

On the rest of the album, Jackson and his band strike an easy but powerful groove, as if they are saying, "we've been doing this for a really long time now, and we really don't feel the need to try and impress you with our musicianship." On "Off Of Wonderland," Browne makes note of his own naivete in the sixties, but at the same time shows that the core of his beliefs remains rooted in the best of that era. "Live Nude Cabaret" offers a wistful look at Jackson's view of the female form (I've heard form follows function/And I think that must be true/Especially when you think of/What the female form will do), and "Just Say Yeah" shows that he still feels a little thrill, even at this late date, at the prospect of a new relationship.

The album closes with "Far From the Arms of Hunger," which appears to be Jackson's rewrite of "Imagine." But the music is absolutely gorgeous, and the song serves as the perfect coda to an imperfect but powerful album that looks at our powerful but imperfect world. After all these years, no one is likely to have their opinion about Jackson Browne changed by Time the Conqueror. But the mere fact that he can produce such strong work at this stage of his career is reason to celebrate.

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