Sunday, August 09, 2009

Top 25 of the 2000s - #24

#24: Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 and Solo Acoustic Vol. 2, Jackson Browne

For Jackson Browne, the past decade has been a time to enjoy the benefits that accrue from having had such a long and illustrious career. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by none other than his own rock hero, Bruce Springsteen. In a sometimes wordy, sometimes funny but always heartfelt and generous speech, Springsteen talked about the qualities that made Browne such an important artist:

The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, they gave us California as paradise and Jackson Browne gave us Paradise Lost. Now I always imagine, what if Brian Wilson, long after he'd taken a bite of that orange the serpent offered to him, what if he married that nice girl in Caroline No, I always figured that she was pregnant anyway, and what if he moved into the valley and had two sons? One of them would have looked and sounded just like Jackson Browne. Cain, of course, would have been Jackson's brother in arms, Warren Zevon. We love ya, Warren. But, Jackson to me, Jackson was always the tempered voice of Abel. Toiling in the vineyards, here to bear the earthly burdens, confronting the impossibility of love, here to do his father's work. Jackson's work was really California pop gospel.

Listen to the chord changes of Rock Me on the Water and Before the Deluge, it's gospel through and through. Now I always thought that in our fall from Eden, besides the strains of physicality and the bearing of earthly burdens, our real earthly task was that an unbridgeable gap, or a black hole was opened up in our ability to truly love one another. And so our job here on earth, the way we regain our divinity, our sacredness, and our general good-standing is by reconstructing love and creating love out of the broken pieces that we've been given. That's all we have of human promise. That's the way we prove ourselves in the eyes of God and facilitate our own redemption. Now, to me Jackson Browne's work was always the sound of that reconstruction. So as he writes in The Pretender: We'll put our dark glasses on, and we'll make love until our strength is gone, and when the morning light comes streamin' in, we'll get up and do it again. Amen.

In the early part of the decade, Rhino Records finally released the compilation album that Browne deserved. In 32 songs, The Very Best of Jackson Browne covered all of the different parts of his career, and if you listened from start to finish, it began to dawn on you that even as his popularity waned after its late-1970s height, his artistry continued to grow. Songs like “In the Shape of a Heart,” “Sky Blue and Black” and “The Naked Ride Home” weren’t just as good as the early gems that began to make him famous – in fact, they were better. And even if the politics at times teetered on the strident, they were always brave. But for me, Browne was never just about politics – as Springsteen noted in his speech, the politics was just another means by which Browne could explore the intricacies of human relationships. As Dave Marsh wrote in the liner notes to Very Best:

All hearts beat alone. The task of the artist is to bring us together, which is a way of saying, to remind us to love, at whatever the cost, because that is our only true path home. At this task, Jackson Browne succeeds from beginning to end.

During the past decade, Browne released two extraordinary albums, but they weren’t the two studio recordings of original works. Both The Naked Ride Home and Time the Conqueror were solid albums, featuring some excellent songs, but neither approached the consistency of earlier Browne classics like Late for the Sky and I’m Alive. No, the two extraordinary albums were the live recordings, Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 and Solo Acoustic Vol. 2, both of which were exactly as advertised – Browne singing through various parts of his songbook, accompanied only by himself, either on guitar or piano.

Part of what makes both of these albums so special is the intimacy which Browne achieves with his audience. On both volumes, the program becomes one long, extended conversation between Browne and his audience. He takes requests, he explains the background for some songs, and above all he is genuinely funny, never taking himself as serious as some of the songs he is singing – self-deprecating, generous, and genuinely warm. And in one case, absolutely hysterical, when he talks about singing The Eagles' "Peaceful, Easy Feelin'" at a recent concert, and forgetting the words.

Browne’s voice today sounds better and stronger than it ever has, and the intimacy of the setting allows him to delve more deeply into the songs than he probably ever has before. From “These Days,” written in the 1960s when Browne was 16; to “Fountain of Sorrow,” one of the early 1970s songs that made him the star he is today; to “Somebody’s Baby,” the hit single that younger generations have continued to discover on the soundtrack to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High;” to “Lives in the Balance,” perhaps his strongest political song; to “The Barricades of Heaven,” the songs all feel of one time and place – they fit together beautifully, even though they were written in very different times and in all likelihood Browne was a very different person when he wrote them.

Forced to pick between the two volumes, I’d probably cast a vote for Vol. 2, if only because it features, consecutively, what I think are three of his very best – and underappreciated – songs: “Sky Blue and Black,” “In the Shape of a Heart,” and “Alive in the World.” But for the purposes of this list, where I make and break the rules as I see fit, the two volumes are one entry, and finish #24 on my list of the Top 25 Albums of the 2000s.

Read my original review of Vol. 2 here.

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