By Eleni P. Austin
Jackson Browne has been earning his keep as a musician since 1966. Fresh out of high school he joined the first line-up of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Country-Rockers recorded a few of his earliest songs. Before his 18th birthday he relocated Greenwich Village to become a staff writer for Elektra Records. In NYC, he was quickly swept up in Andy Warhol’s decadent demi-monde, he began dating Nico, and gave her what became her first post-Velvet Underground song, “These Days.”
Clyde Jackson Browne was born in Heidelberg, Germany in late 1948, to Clyde Jack and Beatrice Browne. His dad was an active serviceman, working for Stars and Stripes. The family, which included an older sister and younger brother, returned to the States and settled in the L.A. area when Jackson was three. A second sister arrived a few years later and by his teens he was performing at clubs like the Ash Grove and the Troubadour.
When he and Nico parted ways, he returned to Los Angeles, right as the fledgling Laurel Canyon scene was taking flight. He was gaining a reputation as a preternaturally gifted songwriter, and artists like Tom Rush, Gregg Allman, Joan Baez and the Byrds began covering his songs. He quickly fell in with like-minded musicians like Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther. By 1971, he signed with David Geffen’s Asylum label.
The Me Decade was a prolific period for Jackson. His self-titled debut arrived in 1972 and he scored his first radio hit, the infectious “Doctor My Eyes.” Rather quickly he was sharing stages with more established artists like Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. Along with James Taylor, he became the archetype for the sensitive singer-songwriter. His boyish good looks didn’t hurt.
1973 saw the release of his sophomore effort, For Everyman, which contained crowd-pleasers like “Redneck Friend,” the title track and “Take It Easy.” Co-written with his pal Glenn Frey, the latter had already been a massive hit for Glenn’s band, the Eagles. His third album, 1974’s Late For The Sky, was his watershed. Songs like “For A Dancer” and “Fountain Of Sorrow” displayed a grace, gravitas and sagacity that belied his tender years. Little did he know his biggest hits were right around the corner.
The Pretender, which was released in 1976, established him commercially, peaking at #5 on the Billboard charts, but success came at a price. The album was released in the wake of his wife Phyllis’ suicide, which left Jackson a widower and a single parent to their young son, Ethan. By turns tender, melancholy and introspective, songs like “Here Come The Tears Again” and the title track (written and mostly recorded before her death), seemed to foreshadow the sorrow he was now experiencing.
His fifth album, Running On Empty was a juggernaut. A loose concept album about life on the road, some tracks recorded live, some in hotel rooms, backstage, on the tour bus, it presented an intriguing portrait of the artist at the height of his powers. Massive hits like “Running On Empty” and “The Load Out/Stay” cemented his reputation, critically and commercially. Peaking at #3 on the charts, it would remain there for more than a year.
In the ‘70s, it seemed as if Jackson could do no wrong and that streak continued into the early ‘80s. Even as Punk, Post-Punk and New Wave became the musical lingua franca, he persevered with albums like The Hold Out (which hit #1) and Lawyers In Love, as well as the indelible single “Somebody’s Baby” from the Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack. But, at that point the political had become personal for Jackson. A liberal Democrat, he had already begun protesting nuclear proliferation, spearheading the all-star No Nukes concert series, which featured Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Dan Fogelberg, the Doobie Brothers, Poco, John Hall, Chaka Khan, Gil Scott-Heron, Jesse Colin Young and Crosby, Stills & Nash. His 1986 effort, Lives In The Balance, reflected his commitment to social justice. The next few albums, World In Motion, I’m Alive, and Looking East took him through to the 21st century, touching on heavy topics like immigration, homelessness and the environment.
The 21st century found Jackson slowing his roll. Although he’s continued to tour regularly, in the last 20 years he has released only three studio albums, The Naked Ride Home in 2002, followed six years later by Time The Conqueror, another six years elapsed before 2014’s Standing In The Breach. But now he’s returned with his 15th long-player, Downhill From Everywhere.
The opening track, “Still Looking For Something,” finds him searching for the kind of peace of mind and emotional equilibrium that eluded him in his early 20s. Barbed electric guitars cascading acoustic riffs, pinwheeling bass lines and cheerful piano notes connect with a rumbling backbeat. As with most great mysteries, it’s as much about the journey as the destination; “And I knew since I was just little, the sharp edges of the world will whittle your dreams down to shavings at your feet/Gonna do my best not to settle, I know it’s going to test my mettle, to keep my options open, even though I’m hoping.” On the break, a springy, spiraling guitar solo underscores this shared sense of idealism and world-weary pragmatism. Leaning in on the personal, a couple tracks speak to the power of love. “Minutes to Downtown” celebrates a late-in-life romance. Frayed acoustic guitar intertwines with flickering electric riffs, and diminished piano chords, slippery Hammond B3 and wily bass lines are wed brawny beat. Although he’s wary of a age difference, noting; “the years I’ve seen that fell between my date of birth and yours,” Jackson cautiously takes the plunge; “No, I didn’t think that I would ever feel this way again, no, not with a story this long and this close to the end, and though I try to fathom why home feels strange to me, more and more the other shore is what I need to see.” On the break, winsome acoustic riffs and gilded piano notes enact a swoony pas de deux. Despite his trepidation, the gauzy instrumental coda seems to signal smooth sailing ahead.
Even though it was written and recorded before the (first wave) of the pandemic, the message of “A Human Touch” feels almost prescient when viewed through the prism of the last 18 months. A wash of pedal steel and dour piano notes open the track. The first voice you hear belongs to Leslie Mendelson, the young singer-songwriter who co-wrote the song. As she and Jackson trade verses, their harmonies intertwine on the chorus. More than a lover’s lament, lyrics address the divisive climate of the country; “There’s no point in shouting from your island, proclaiming only Jesus saves, there will always be suffering there will always be pain,” the myopic focus on technology; “Everybody gets lonely, feel like it’s all too much, reaching out for some connection, or maybe just their own reflection..” and the eternal disconnect; “Everybody wants a holiday, everybody wants to feel the sun, get outside and run around, live like they’re forever young/Everybody wants to be beautiful and live life their own way, no one ever wants to let it go, no matter what they do or say.”
Jackson Browne was “woke” decades before the term was coined, so it’s no surprise that three tracks on this record are dedicated to waking up other folks as well. “The Dreamer” is a South Of The Border charmer accented by courtly Vihuela, sinewy electric riffs, shaded acoustic licks and taut bass all tethered to a loping rhythm. Alternating English and Espanol verses, the lyrics share the all-to-familiar saga of a dreamer whose family came to this country for a better life; “Just a child when she crossed the border to reunite with her father who had traveled North to support her so many years before/She left half her family behind her and with a crucifix to remind her, she’s pledged her future to this land and does the best that she can do.” The previous, Spray-tanned administration takes steps to deport her (and millions of other D.A.C.A. recipients), demonizing and scapegoating an entire population in the process. Despite the swaying melody and instrumentation, the song’s final verse is suffused in heartbreak; “Adonde van los suenos? (Where do the dreamers go?) Nacidas de la fe y la illusion (born of faith and illusion) Donde no hay camino ni huella (where there’s no road and no footprint) Solo desos que susurrant al corazon (only desire that whispers to the heart)”
“Until Justice Is Real” is a lithe and elastic rocker powered by crisp bass lines, a crackling beat and a phalanx of electric and acoustic guitars. Jackson’s righteous indignation is matched by slashing power chords and stuttery acoustic riff-age. Lyrics inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, that only intensified following the murder of George Floyd, urge us to rally ‘round a cause that counts; “Ain’t no directions, there ain’t no map, ain’t no instructions and you know there ain’t no app, you want power? You’ll need help, look to each other and you’ll find it in yourself/It’s a good question to be asking right now, what’ll you put up with-what’ll you allow? What is the color, the color of change? What is democracy, what is the deal? What would it look like, how would it feel? Putting your shoulder to the wheel, keeping it turning until justice is real.” Piquant lap steel runs punctuate each verse and take flight, soaring on the break.
The title track is the album’s most ambitious cut. From the insistent melody and cogent arrangement to the tensile instrumentation and perspicacious lyrics. Wah-wah guitar collides with stinging lead licks and muscular rhythm riffs, Swirly Hammond B3 and stately piano notes dart through the mix, anchored by prowling bass lines and a walloping backbeat. Jackson’s mien pivots from outrage to irritation to compassionate and instructive, as lyrics connect the dots; “Downhill from the Silver Screen, downhill from the Anthropocene, downhill from the vineyard, downhill from the mine downhill from the fruited plain and the bottom line, down here from Columbine/Downhill from the racetrack, downhill from the news, downhill from the sponsors and the camera crews, downhill from the born to lose, downhill from God’s golden shore, downhill from the grocery store, downhill from the senate floor, K Street and the never-ending war.” It’s clear that our collective (in)action is killing the planet. The final rejoinder takes aim at the usual suspects and repeat offenders; “Downhill from the N.R.A., downhill from the G.O.P., downhill from the I.C.E. and your huddled masses, yearning to be free.” Jagged guitars strut, strafe and swagger on the extended instrumental coda.
The album’s best songs, “My Cleveland Heart” and “A Little Too Soon To Say” are potent reminders of Jackson’s still protean songcraft. The former was co-written by his touring guitarist (a dazzling singer-songwriter in his own right) Val McCallum. Searing lap steel rides roughshod over thready bass lines, prickly electric riffs, sunny acoustic notes and a percolating beat. Playful lyrics insist that mending a broken heart is a snap with 21st century technology; “I’m going to make a few changes right away, the way I leap the way I fall, the way I need somebody else’s eyes to see me, the way I need anyone at all/But I expect the real changes to start when I finally get my Cleveland Heart, they’re made to take a bashin’ and never lose their passion.” Rippling lap steel and stinging guitars bob and weave on the break. The chorus finds Jackson and Val teaming up like a couple of late night informercial hucksters, extoling the virtues of the Bass-o-matic ’76 mechanical, cardiac circulatory device; “They never break-they don’t even beat, and they don’t ache- they just plug in and shine, don’t make mistakes-and they don’t know defeat, like my heart makes, like this broken heart of mine.”
The latter is part tender benediction, part restless farewell. Serpentine guitars and warm Hammond B3 are bookended by angular bass and a sly, shuffle rhythm. On verses like “I didn’t find too much wisdom when time was on my side, too little information, too much time to decide, I took a couple wrong turns-it only takes you one, to send you down a lifetime of wondering what you might have done/Searching for a lifetime for what you want to see, when all we’ve ever needed has been there all along inside you and me” Jackson’s trademark perspicacity is on full display.
It seems like this nearly perfect record could end right there, but Jackson has one final trick up his sleeve and he closes the album with “A Song For Barcelona.” An exuberant and expansive Samba clocking in at nearly nine minutes. Breezy and evocative, voluptuous guitars, lush piano notes, pliant bass lines, lock into a gamboling groove. Lyrics, in English and Espanol pay homage to Spain’s cosmopolitan citadel. It also finds Jackson looking at a life beyond music; “This is a song for Barcelona, for architecture and futbol, and for the streets that gave me refuge, in my escape from rock and roll.”
Produced by Jackson, the album includes a plethora of pickers and players including Bob Glaub and Davey Faragher on bass, Mauricio Lewak, Pete Thomas and Jay Bellarose on drums, Jeff Young, Patrick warren and Jason Crosby on keys and Raul Rodriguez on palmas. Aside from Val McCallum, Jackson’s guitar army included Mark Goldenberg and heavy-hitters like Waddy Wachtel and Greg Leisz (who also played lap and pedal steel). Plus vocal assists from Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills.
Jackson remains an unapologetic social warrior, arguing in a recent interview, “what’s more personal than your political beliefs? It’s highly personal.” Never preachy or pedantic, the songs on this album feel like heartfelt conversations with an old friend. A lot of road has rushed under Jackson’s wheels since he began his career. Although he hints at slowing down, Downhill From Everywhere finds him still firing on all cylinders.