Saturday, November 01, 2014

No Country for Old Men? The Visions of Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger

In his review of Bruce Springsteen's The River, 34 years ago this fall, critic Paul Nelson asked the question, "Bruce Springsteen isn't an old man yet. Isn't it odd that he's trying so hard to adopt the visions of one?"

[Footnote: Nelson loved Springsteen, and gave the album a very good review, but you have to remember that those were the days when Rolling Stone record reviews frequently had the temerity to question even the works of the Gods.]

Fast forward to this fall, and the release of new albums by three artists who are old men - Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger.  They're 66, 63 and 69 years old respectively, and you can say what you want about 60 being the new 40, but I'm not buying it.  These guys are grizzled veterans, even if Browne sometimes looks as if he might have an aging portrait of himself hiding up in the attic somewhere.  They're all members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  They all enjoyed, at one point in their careers, the trappings of superstardom - platinum albums, the cover of Rolling Stone, the works.  And now, all three are closer to the ends of their careers than they are to the beginning.

Based on these new works, they are all acutely interested in their respective visions, wanting to make statements about the world we live in.  This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as all three have addressed the world around them throughout their careers.  Of the three, Browne is probably linked most closely to the political world, but even at the height of his popularity Mellencamp wrote songs like "Rain on the Scarecrow," and heck - Seger released a song protesting the Vietnam War, "2 + 2 =?," before anyone had even heard of Jackson Browne or John Mellencamp (not to mention "Feel Like a Number" a decade later).  So let's stipulate that their bonafides are well established when it comes to this sort of thing.

Let's start with Jackson Browne.  In the October 23 issue of RS, there's a piece written by Browne with David Fricke, "My Life in 15 Songs," which contains a vital clue as to how he approaches politics in his songs.  It's when he's talking about "For America," about which he says the following:

"The reason "For America" was so explicit is I had done "Lawyers in Love," and nobody got it.  It was sarcastic, and people didn't find their way into the humor.  This time I was determined not to be misunderstood.  I needed to be clear about it - "I was made for America."  Even people whose judgments I admire were like, "Maybe you can change that."  I think it worried a lot of my audience."

It's commendable that Browne is that open about his approach, because his change of approach in his writing was a pivotal point in his career.  Unfortunately, while I admire his consistency and his steadfastness in pursuit of a cause, his art has suffered for it.  When I listen to "Standing in the Breach," there's no doubt in my mind that the political songs are the weakest songs on the album, some to the point of being almost unlistenable.  Consider these lyrics:

It's so hard keeping track of what's gone wrong
The covenant unravels, and the news just rolls along
I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago
It's hard to say which did more ill
Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill

"The Long Way Around"

The Romans, the Spanish, the British, the Dutch
American exceptionalism - so out of touch
Successions of empire repeating its course
Extracting the wealth and ruling by force
On and on through time

"If I Could Be Anywhere"

Which side?
The corporations attacking
The natural world - drilling and fracking
All done with the backing of the craven and corrupt
Or the ones who fight
For the Earth with all their might
And in the name of all that's right
Confront and disrupt

"Which Side?"

Rock on!

The problem I see with lyrics like these - aside from the fact that I just don't think anything is quite as black and white as Jackson apparently sees it - is that they're not any better than the drivel that we're subjected to on a nightly basis on the cable news networks.  It's a lecture, plain and simple, it's shrill, and then Browne goes and ups the ante by essentially saying that we're either with him or against him - there's no middle ground.

Even that could be forgiven if there was a hint of humor in the songs, or an anger in the music to complement the anger inherent in the lyrics.  Unfortunately, the songs are just not that interesting, and they come close to pulling the album down with them, like an anchor.  And frankly, I don't think they do the causes about which Browne cares about so deeply any good.  In the end, he just comes across as a guy who approaches life without ever having asked himself the question, "did it ever occur to you that you might be wrong?"

The good news is that there are several really strong songs on the album, which overall make it his best in quite some time.  There's the doo-wop pastiche "Yeah Yeah," which suffers only from being about two minutes too long, there's "Leaving Winslow," which demonstrates that on occasion, Browne can address political concerns with humor (not to mention fun and interesting music), there's "You Know the Night," for which Jackson and Rob Wasserman have written some great music to accompany some lost lyrics from Woody Guthrie, there's "Here," which proves again that one area where Browne can always be trusted is with matters of the heart, and in fairness there's even the title track, which does address the worldly concerns he cares about without coming across as overly pedantic.

On "Ride Out," his first album in I have no idea how long, Bob Seger also falls into the trap of literalism on his most overtly political song, but for the most part comes out unscathed.  Frankly, it is just great to hear his voice again, and to know that there's still some fire in his belly (which looks to be a little more substantial than his halcyon days of the late 70s, I have to say).  So while you may roll your eyes a bit when the first song comes on and you hear that Bob is once again extolling the virtues of Detroit-made cars ("Detroit Made"), you can't help but smile to yourself because the damn song sounds so good.  And to be fair, John Hiatt wrote it, so at least you can't accuse Seger of going to the same well too often.

Of the ten songs on the album (I bought the bonus version that has three additional tracks, but I'm never sure whether to consider those songs a part of the album, and in this case I'm not going to), four are covers, and this is something for which Seger should probably be commended - why push it too hard if you just can't come up with an album full of winners anymore?  And they're all strong choices - Steve Earle's "The Devil's Right Hand," which is given a treatment that would feel right at home on Springsteen's "The River;" "Adam and Eve" by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, which allows Bob to get his country on; and "California Stars," the Tweedy/Bennett Woody Guthrie song from the great Wilco/Billy Bragg album "Mermaid Avenue."

But many of Bob's tunes are strong as well.  "Hey Gypsy" sounds at first like a young dude strutting song that he might have written forty years ago, until you get to the line about him getting "kinda nervous 'cause the music's too loud" and realize that there's a fair dose of self-deprecation in the mix.  There are some songs near the end of the album ("All of the Roads," "You Take Me In" and "Gates of Eden") that definitely sound like a man who his ready to sum up his career and his life, and while they may strike fans of his hardest-edged work as feeling a little bloated, it's hard to deny their emotional impact.

The two overtly political songs are a mixed bag.  Bob strikes out on "It's Your World," which demonstrates that he cares deeply about what is happening to the environment but not in a particularly interesting way, and "Ride Out," which strikes me as being the best song on the album.  It's not quite "Feel Like a Number" ("Damn it, I'm a man!"), but it's close enough.

Of the three albums, the one with the strongest (and purest) musical and lyrical vision is John Mellencamp's "Plain Spoken."  What Mellencamp is achieving in the late stages of his career is really quite remarkable.  It's almost as if he knows that, because of his ridiculous early "Johnny Cougar" days, he's doomed to go to his grave underrated.  But he's determined to do something about it, and amazingly enough this album coupled with 2010's "No Better Than This" may just be the strongest one-two punch of his entire career (and that's leaving out his collaborative effort with Stephen King, "Ghostland Brothers of Darkland County," for which he wrote several terrific songs).

A hint of the themes explored on the album can be derived simply by looking at the song's titles, which include "Troubled Man," "Sometimes There's God," "Tears in Vain," "Freedom of Speech" and "Lawless Times."  On this record, Mellencamp is most definitely adopting the vision of an old man.  It hasn't been an easy life - as intimated in the title of the song, if "sometimes there's God," sometimes there's not:

Sometimes there's God and sometimes there's just not
A little redemption would help us a lot
Sometimes there's God in the palm of your hand
Somedays hard times will cover your land

On "Plain Spoken," Mellencamp essentially is telling the same story as Jackson Browne, but he's going about it in an entirely different way.  He's telling the stories of the lives of people who have been impacted by the things that Browne sings about in the songs that are quoted above, and then allows the listener to reach their own conclusions.  And if he's done his job, it shouldn't be that difficult.  And when he does go the literal route, on the album's closer "Lawless Times," he accompanies what could otherwise be construed as strident lyrics with a musical accompaniment that demonstrates he's not taking himself too seriously, even when talking about such important matters.

On the album's two best songs - "The Isolation of Mister" and "Blue Charlotte" - Mellencamp achieves a beauty in both the stories being told and the music that leaves one almost breathless.  These are not happy stories - the former song is about a man who realizes (too late) that what he thought was a life of freedom was in fact a cage, and the latter is about a man (perhaps the same man?) who pays a visit to Charlotte, in the days before her death:

And if you pass tonight in your sleep
You will still have me to weep
I'm all that remains here
Blue Charlotte

Yellow letters from your youth
All of them seeking truth 
The poems written from me to you
Blue Charlotte

Behind those words is some of Mellencamp's best singing, and a mournful violin that sounds like nothing less than the knife to cut the pain out of the protagonist's heart that Bruce Springsteen sang about in "The Promised Land."

In the end, let us praise these famous men, and be thankful for what they have brought to us.


Carol said...

Yes, some of Browne's political lyrics made me cringe. (I did like the line about the bad news just keeps rolling on, however.). Your (as always clearly written) review makes me want to hear the other two albums by those aging (my age!) artists.

Carol said...

I've been listening to the new Browne CD a lot (driving back and forth from the Bay Area for various kid-related business), and your column compelled me to pay special attention to the political songs. As I said in my earlier comment, I agree that he gets preachy and clunky. But I disagree about one particular lyric that you objected to. These lines really speak to me:

"It's so hard keeping track of what's gone wrong
The covenant unravels, and the news just rolls along
I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago"

The lyrics that follow aren't as good. But the lines quoted above perfectly capture how I have been feeling about the continual rush of horrible news. I do feel "my memory go some two or three disasters ago." Just wanted to defend Browne for that political statement. I need to get the other two albums you feature in this post. Thanks again, Jeff, for all the intelligent discourse. I love your blog!