On the song “A Piece Of The Pie” from his new album Harps And Angels, Randy Newman assesses the state of our nation this way: “Jesus Christ it stinks here high and low/The rich are getting richer, I should know/While we’re going up you’re going down/No one gives a shit but Jackson Browne.”
Make that two shits, please. With a new beard and an album title that could be lifted from the Old Testament, Jackson Browne is making like the wizened musical prophet he was meant to become. The singer-songwriter has long mined a rich songbook from injustices of the heart and the voting booth. His latest album, his first of all-original material in six years, weighs more on the side of the latter.
It’s not like he’s been lacking inspiration. The exiting White House occupants could file for royalty compensation considering they’ve provided a crib sheet of material. “Where Were You”, a buzzing, ten-minute electro-rocker, recounts the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “Going Down To Cuba” laments the U.S. embargo of that country, and “The Drums Of War” questions the Bush Doctrine (as opposed to questioning what the Bush Doctrine is, ahem) and fairly asks why “impeachment is not on the table.”
Their failing is not in message but in medium. Past milestones such as Late For The Sky (1974) and even I’m Alive (1993) have shown how much Browne is a standout when he finds new ways to describe the ecstasy of new hope and the agony when it turns old hat. On his songs, disappointment is always two steps behind wonder, so it’s understandable how much his metaphorical gifts, combined with an old soul’s sadness in his voice, makes his music direct shots to musical heartbreak. Unlike other songwriters of his generation who cheapen the experience through sad-sack cliches, Browne gives feeling bad profound nobility.
Time The Conqueror aims for similar crosshairs, but the contact is duller. The ripped-from-the-headlines lyrics don’t necessarily hold up against a musical backdrop – try singing “Who gives the orders, orders to torture/Who gets to no bid contract the future” and make it flow.
His band, including longtime bassist Kevin McCormick and the vocal powerhouse of Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, doesn’t stray far from certain Browne signatures (majestic piano chords, twinkling guitars, laid-back midtempo grooves). But given the anger in songs that call for the impeachment of a sitting president and demand accountability for criminal failings at the Superdome, the music doesn’t sound particularly pissed off. As much as Neil Young was lampooned for the agitprop screeds of Living With War, at least the music, from the sneer in his voice to the raw guitar bleeds, sounded right on par with the emotional heft of the songs.
But no matter how many failed political candidates and third-world injustices Browne addresses in his music, his more substantial work has always circled back to the dark edges of love, where, as it goes in his songs, danger and heartbreak blur the most. “The Arms Of Night” revisits territory of Late For the Sky; there’s a certain beauty in a song that opens with the line, “The things people do looking for understanding/Defy understanding,” and then proceeds from there. Because of the naivete Browne still carries in his voice, pushed forward by his piano’s thudding chord changes, the song is not about dejection; it’s genuine wonder of how things could get so bad in the first place.
That fine line is how Browne is able to pull off “Live Nude Cabaret”, which uses strip clubs as a metaphor for innocence lost, and “Off Of Wonderland”, a tuneful guitar-pop number that calls upon a young man’s hope to awaken an old man’s heart.
He should know. At 60, Browne is still a first-rate depressive, but one who still won’t sour.