Friday, November 23, 2012

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #27 - "Late for the Sky"

Stephen Holden's review of "Late for the Sky," RS October 1974
For a very long time, I would have chosen "Running on Empty" as my favorite Jackson Browne album.  It's still a great album, and because of the concept - songs recorded live in concert, mixed with songs recorded on the tour bus, in a hotel room, and elsewhere - it still has a spontaneity that has sometimes been missing, even from his best work.

But over time, I've come to believe that "Late for the Sky" represents Jackson Browne at his very best - the most perfect combination of the personal and political that he's managed to date, and probably the best that he will ever come up with.

In his review of the album for Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden wrote that the overriding theme of the album was "the exploration of romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse," going on to say that "no contemporary male singer/songwriter has dealt so honestly with the vulnerability of romantic idealism and the pain of adjustment from youthful narcissism to adult survival as Browne has in this album." I wonder what Browne might say about that latter comment, given that he was only 26 at the time the album was released - a man certainly with a lot of maturing yet to do.  And let's face it - Browne's strength has always been his romantic idealism, even as he was writing songs like "Running on Empty," "Lives in the Balance," and "Looking East."

Musically, the album bridges the gap between singer/songwriter and all-out rocker, which I suspect Browne has always wanted to be (unlike many of his L.A. contemporaries, Browne dearly loves and respects the music of Bruce Springsteen, and even invited Bruce to handle his induction speech to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).  David Lindley, with whom Browne has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, is absolutely brilliant on electric guitar and fiddle, Jai Winding contributes beautiful organ and piano lines, and Doug Haywood on bass and Larry Zack on drums make a potent if understated rhythm section.  The music Browne contributes is hauntingly beautiful - I don't know how many hundreds of times I've listened to "Late for the Sky" and "Fountain of Sorrow," and they almost never fail to raise goosebumps on my arms.

Jackson Browne isn't everyone's cup of tea, and there are people who seem to delight in making fun of him.  In my mind, he is - without question - one of the most important American musical artists of the past 50 years.  And "Late for the Sky" is his greatest, most cohesive album.

Late for the Sky (1974)
Produced by Jackson Browne and Al Schmitt

Late for the Sky/Fountain of Sorrow/Farther On/The Late Show/The Road and the Sky/For a Dancer/Walking Slow/Before the Deluge

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