By Lee Zimmerman
With the recent release of Jackson Browne's album, Downhill From Everywhere, Goldmine lists and details the critical choices for singer-songwriter releases throughout his career.
JACKSON BROWNE A.K.A. SATURATE BEFORE USING (1972)
THE SIGNIFICANCE: Few debut albums have ever made as much of an emphatic impression as Jackson Browne’s stellar debut, a set of songs that defined him as an essential singer-songwriter at the peak of his prowess even early on. One of the first albums released on the budding Asylum Records label — later home to the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and even Bob Dylan for a brief period of time — it set a standard for a sound and style thoroughly engrained within the roster’s template. It also established Browne as a surprisingly tender and trusting romanticist, albeit somewhat naive due to his obvious obsession with pure, unbridled optimism. The name of the album is still cause for confusion; while it was meant to be an eponymous effort, the words “saturate before using” suggested some sort of cryptic concern that the album’s contents has to be properly absorbed in order to be effectively enjoyed. Like The Beatles’ so-called “White Album,” the title allows the individual his or her own reference. Regardless, anyone seeking evidence of Browne’s early ability would be well advised to initiate their exploration here.
THE BACKSTORY: Browne’s success as a songwriter was already well established even before he went out on his own. His early composition “These Days” made an enduring impression and helped ex-Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico find her first hint of solo success. Browne was only 16 at the time, but rumors that he had carried on a torrid affair with the singer certainly didn’t hinder his romantic reputation. A brief stint with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band provided further proof of his proficiency, as did the songs he shared with others — most notably “Take It Easy,” a massive early hit for the Eagles, and “Jamaica Say You Will,” which The Byrds included on their album Byrdmaniax prior to Browne’s own. Notably, Browne’s ability was also recognized early on by the Laurel Canyon crowd, given the fact that David Crosby, Graham Nash, pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow, singer Leah Kunkel, ace guitarists Clarence White, Jesse Ed Davis and Albert Lee, and the cream of L.A.’s studio scene — bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel — all lent their talents to this initial endeavor.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: The track list represents not only some of Browne’s best songs, but indeed, those that would forever be considered among the most memorable music in his repertoire — “Jamaica Say You Will,” “Song for Adam,” “ A Child in These Hills,” “Doctor My Eyes,” “My Opening Farewell” and “Rock Me on the Water” all constituting what amounted to an early best-of. While it took time to reach its full sales potential — it wasn’t certified gold until four years later and only went platinum in 1997 — it’s a landmark recording by any estimation. Ironically, too, only “Doctor My Eyes” managed to hit the Top 10 on the singles charts, although clearly it was a precursor of greater triumphs that were yet to come.
FOR EVERYMAN (1973)
THE SIGNIFICANCE: Having revved up his reputation via his debut, Browne wasted no time in releasing a fine follow-up, one which offered further examples of his incisive seminal style. The album also marked Browne’s initial collaboration with multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, his longstanding sideman. Once again, he was able to gather an all-star list of backing musicians — among them Crosby, Mitchell, Little Feat’s Bill Payne, Bonnie Riatt, Sneaky Pete, Don Henley and even Elton John, who offers his services under the alias “Rockaday Johnnie.” Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel also appear, part of a working relationship that would continue in the decades to come. Mostly though, the album gave notice that Browne’s inestimable talents had made him an artist destined for essential standing within the long tradition of classic American singer-songwriters. Having come so quickly on the heels of his debut, that fact was obvious even at the outset.
THE BACKSTORY: By the time Browne released his version of “These Days,” the song was already a staple for any number of artists — Nico, Tom Rush and Gregg Allman among the more prominent. Browne was so inspired by Allman’s recording in particular that he used it as an inspiration for his own rendition. Yet considering the fact that the song had been written several years earlier, it seemed a somewhat belated entry. Likewise, his take on “Take It Easy,” co-written with Glenn Frey and the Eagles’ big breakthrough hit, was a late entry as well.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: While “These Days” certainly gets the nod as one of the top songs in the set, the fact is, every entry ultimately provided further confirmation of Browne’s prowess as a singer, songwriter and one of the most distinctive voices of his generation. “I Thought I Was a Child” and the title track are clearly among the most memorable songs of Browne’s early canon, but “Redneck Friend” also stands out, its brazen edge and electricity offering a marked break from the tender trappings that define the album overall.
LATE FOR THE SKY (1974)
THE SIGNIFICANCE: If three is a lucky number, then consider this, Browne’s third album in the space of a few years, the guarantee of a winning trifecta. An album of considerable weight and consequence, it reflects a knowing maturity, an astute intelligence and a willingness to reflect on sentiments and situations that transcend the typical romantic relationship. At this point in his career, Browne turned his gaze inward and, with candor and conscience, bared his emotions and insecurities in ways few other artists were ever willing to do. It’s a knowing set of songs, one with themes that dwell well below the surface with a kind of literary largess that befits Browne’s considerable poetic prowess.
THE BACKSTORY: Due to David Geffen’s insistence that Browne cut his recording costs, the album was cut with his touring band, allowing his steady sideman David Lindley to remain at the fore. Not that he lacked his usual array of all-star guests — J.D. Souther, Dan Fogelberg, Don Henley and Terry Reid were also on hand to contribute the spot-on harmonies. Yet, the progression was obvious; with only eight songs in total, over half exceeded the five-minute range, defying the parameters required for Top 40 airplay. It was just as well given that the material took a more solemn stance and eschewed the obvious commercial concerns needed to ensure hit single status.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: It’s practically impossible to listen to songs such as “Fountain of Sorrow,” “For a Dancer,” “Late for the Sky” and “Before the Deluge” without feeling the full weight of Browne’s conflicts and concerns, no surprise given the personal perspective imbued in the album overall. A handful of songs did get some additional mileage, most notably the title track, which was used in the film Taxi Driver and “Before the Deluge,” ably covered by Joan Baez on her album Honest Lullaby. However, regardless of the lack of Top 40 success, these songs continue to resonate and still make an indelible impression.
THE PRETENDER (1976)
THE SIGNIFICANCE: The Pretender took a relatively longtime to gestate, at least compared to his Browne’s three earlier albums. Yet the reason for the delay was obvious given the suicide of Browne’s wife, Phyllis Major, and the tumult and turmoil that followed in its wake. The album shared that emotional upheaval, with songs that further reflected Browne’s complicated and conflicting sentiments when it came to reconciling trust with relationships, and the tenuous bonds that often drove a wedge in-between. It was a strained scenario eloquently expressed on the title track with equal emphasis on both cynicism and suffering:
“I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring
Were they only the fitful dreams
Of some greater awakening?”
THE BACKSTORY: In retrospect, The Pretender marked a distinct change in Browne’s trajectory, both personally and professionally. No longer a simple storyteller, he was now making music from a bruised perspective in the aftermath of a decidedly traumatic turn. The album is, by every measure, an epic work, and one that distinguishes its creator as one of the most thoughtful and incisive artists of his generation, a singer and songwriter whose influence and impact continue to linger long in the annals of popular music.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: “Here Comes Those Tears Again,” “Your Bright Baby Blues” and “The Pretender” are addressed to a seemingly distant muse, one whose indifference to circumstance was not only difficult to navigate but also clearly at odds with Browne’s hopes and desire. It’s worth noting that “Here Comes Those Tears Again” was a co-write with his wife’s mother, Nancy Farnsworth, an apt choice concerning the emotion she shared while reflecting on the loss of her daughter.
LIVES IN THE BALANCE (1986)
THE SIGNIFICANCE: After spending a good part of his later career campaigning for causes — most famously as an anti-nuclear activist — Lives in the Balance found Browne putting his music where his mouthpiece had been — that is, speaking out against the growing influence of Reagan-era political and social policy. The lack of empathy for the less-privileged, substituting instead the celebration of freewheeling capitalism and an anything-goes attitude towards the very rich found him speaking out for the first time, consolidating his thoughts in this most striking set of songs.
THE BACKSTORY: Browne had long since expressed his concerns about a foreign policy that seemed hell bent on supplanting the right of Third World countries to determine their own destinies. He saw it as coercion, an attempt to force less-advanced nations to bow to an imperialist policy that was strictly designed to force America’s will on others merely to feed its own interests. One lyric in particular summed up the sentiment:
“The thing I wonder about
the Dads and Moms —
Who send their sons to the Vietnams —
Will they really think their way of life
Has been protected as the next war comes?”
It was a harrowing proposition, magnified by the bastardizing of the American dream:
“I was made for America
It's in my blood and in my bones
By the dawn's early light /
by all I know is right —
We're gonna reap what we have sown.”
Clearly Browne was ready to throw down the proverbial gauntlet and stand with those who were ready to repudiate the sweep of calculated conservatism ushered in by Ronald Reagan and those who appeared to have little regard for the American idealism that had been so carefully fostered in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was hardly surprising that the album barely managed to claw its way into the Top 25 of the Billboard 200, a somewhat lackluster placement considering his earlier achievements.
THE STANDOUT SONGS: “Lives in the Balance” and “For America” clearly summed up the sentiment of wariness and mistrust that drive the album overall. However, Browne had not dropped his romantic yearnings entirely, especially as evidenced by the song “In the Shape of a Heart.” Like many of his earlier efforts — “For Everyman” being the most obvious — it’s a love song underscored by frailty and uncertainty, a troubled journey to the depths of desire. It was rumored that it too was addressed to his late wife, Phyllis Major, for whom he had never shorn his guilt and remorse. It was one of Browne’s final songs to score success on the charts, with only the title track of 1993’s “I’m Alive” making a greater impression overall.