I already know that Jackson Browne’s Standing in the Breach is one of the best albums of the year and will be an album that I will listen to for many years to come. It is intelligent and emotional in equal measure. It feels both inspired and well crafted. He has found the right balance between poetry and directness in his writing. Along with Time the Conqueror, this continues his late career renaissance. Sonically this probably recalls his 70’s peak more than anything else since.
I love almost all of Jackson Browne’s career expect for his 90’s work. He still released some great songs in that period (I’m Alive, The Barricades of Heaven), but overall he seemed to lose his way to LA slickness. Some would argue that he lost his way to that in the 80’s, but despite the hallmarks of 80’s production techniques, which I never really minded personally, I love albums such as Lawyers in Love and Lives in the Balance. In the 90’s his songs felt too adult contemporary and stodgy. It was too easy to write him off when he is really one of the greatest poets working in modern songwriting. He began his climb back up the mountain with The Naked Ride Home, whose title track displays a wicked sense of humor that is too often overlooked in Browne’s work. However, that album was still flawed. On Time the Conqueror he got the writing and the sound right, and now he is at the top of his game again.
Jackson Browne’s voice is an instrument that works best when singing great melodies. When married to the right melody it is a thing of transcendence. This new album is full of great melodies.
Some of the nods in production and songwriting to his past are clearly on purpose. The Long Way Around and Leaving Winslow pay musical respects to These Days and Take It Easy respectively. The Birds of St. Marks is an old song he wrote concerning his time with Nico and Andy Warhol’s Factory that finally receives the production that he always felt it deserved. However, this is no nostalgia ride. He is using the past to contrast it with the present, which Browne finds troubling, though not without hope.
Browne is one of the best political songwriters there is, as he knows how to write about current events with one eye towards eternity. He is not just rehashing the days headlines like many political songwriters do, but infusing them with poetry and deeper meaning.
I mentioned that The Long Way Around was a rewrite of These Days. Where once Jackson Browne was the most introspective of songwriters, he now often looks outwards. Using a chord progression and quoting the words “these days” could be a really bad decisions in lesser songwriters, but with Jackson Browne you feel that he is taking stock of his own life and the world around them and how it has changed.
I don’t know what to say about these days
I’m seeing people changing in the strangest ways
Even in the richer neighbourhoods
People don’t know when they got it good
They got the envy and they got it bad
Anyone that reads the papers will know that even rich people are uncertain about our current economic situation. If you turn on Fox News for a moment you will also see the rich portrayed as victims, often by themselves. Browne is keyed into what is happening in the world. But he is too smart to preach. He simply states what is going on and lets the listener do the thinking.
On Walls and Doors, which he wrote with Cuban songwriter Carlos Verelas there is poetry alongside with Browne’s quest for social justice:
Ever since the world existed
One thing it is certain
Some build walls, others open doors
Of what use is the moon
If you don’t have the night?
Of what use is a windmill
With no Quixote left to fight?
Browne is not also an excellent political writer, but a great study of the human heart and the complexity of the human condition. This has been true ever since he first started out. On The Birds of St. Marks, as I mentioned a song that was actually written in the 60’s, he sings:
But all my frozen words agree and say it’s time to
Call back all the birds I sent to
Fly behind her castle walls and I’m
Weary of the nights I’ve seen
Inside these empty halls
But if Browne was only a great lyricist it wouldn’t make his songs powerful. When he and his band get the sound right, his songs are highly emotional. This is, aside from Time the Conqueror, the most organic sounding album he has put out since the 70’s. You can actually picture musicians playing alongside each other instead of them being sequestered clinically in different booths in an LA studio. I have no idea which is actually the case, I’m sure the recording was made in somewhat modern fashion, but it at least feels natural. His band also plays with great subtlety, bringing out the nuance of each song.
Browne has often, unfairly, gotten lumped in with the mellow 70’s bands and solo acts like The Eagles and James Taylor. His songwriting is much more fearless and intelligent than any of those other acts. Don’t let the fact that it is often quite beautiful fool you. He is putting his neck on the chopping block much more than almost any dangerous sounding indie band. With Browne you get the best of all worlds, you get someone that will challenge the way you think while making music that is actually a joy to listen to. I’m glad that he is out there and that he has provided us with this new collection of songs.