How you feel about Jackson Browne probably depends largely on your level of appreciation for songcraft in general; if you’re the type of person who thinks that, say, the Sex Pistols tapped directly into rock’s screaming pulse, then you’re likely to look at Browne like a consummate phony, the worst kind of simpering hippie balladeer. And there’s a kernel of truth to that, really. As good as Browne has been — and continues to be — even his best songs and brightest moments lack the spontenaeity that, for many, is a prerequisite for great rock music.

For better or for worse, he’s a songwriter, in the truest sense of the word. Even at their most nakedly personal, his songs are never less than solidly built; though his catalog has its share of misbegotten songs, even the missteps were labored over. He’s a tunesmith (and maybe even more of a wordsmith), and there aren’t many doing it his way anymore. His continued relevance is a source of amazement for many who regard the contemporary scene as a logjam of the crass and the dumbed-down, but really, Browne’s career has always been slightly curious: His most successful records were released in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time in which the willful incompetence of punk and blinding sheen of disco should have kept him off the charts completely.

As his career has worn on, Browne has seemed to struggle with his muse, finding it more difficult to string together the kind of startlingly resonant observations that filled his earlier albums. After spending his first decade as a recording artist looking almost solely inward, he turned his gaze out on the world in the mid-’80s, and seemed to lose a piece of what made him special in the process. Strength of conviction has always been one of Browne’s strongest suits, but when it’s applied to the political, a willingness to define things in stark, simplistic terms can often backfire. Many of Browne’s political statements from this period sound dated or naïve — or both.

Seeming to recognize this, Browne retrained his gaze on the personal in the ’90s. Critics have accused his late-period work of lacking the kind of emotional heft or insight that once set his songs apart, and that’s valid. On the other hand, Browne is now middle-aged — he turned 57 two days ago — and should be expected to shoulder that mantle no more than your grandfather. Lessons painfully learned in one’s youth no longer carry the same power or meaning later in life, what Browne is doing now is simply refining and honing his craft. On Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 — out today — this is plainly obvious: The songs that Browne has been carrying with him, some for more than four decades, have been expertly seasoned and burnished.

What better time for a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jackson Browne?

Jackson Browne (1972)
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Early in his career, Browne built a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter, the type of guy who, even if you wrote your own material, made you want to cover his. Though his first stab at a recording career fell through, his songs took on a life of their own, particularly among L.A.-based artists like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. The upshot is that by the time his debut album was released in 1972, he was in a unique position for a “new” artist; though Jackson Browne (also frequently referred to as Saturate Before Using) wasn’t a big hit, the album was a favorite among the right people (i.e. those who were in a position to record his songs, and make or break his career).

Critics have long marveled at Jackson Browne; it isn’t often that a debut so perfectly encapsulates an artist’s strengths. It’s essentially a template for not only Browne’s own career, but the whole L.A. singer-songwriter sound. You could have heard these same tasteful acoustic guitars, unobtrusive drums, and unflinchingly earnest vocals on any number of albums in the ’70s, most of them released by Browne’s label home, Elektra/Asylum (and most of those featuring the inimitable Russ Kunkel on the aforementioned unobtrusive drums).

The big hit was “Doctor My Eyes,” but there are a number of future classics here, including “Jamaica Say You Will” (download) and “Rock Me on the Water” (download).

For Everyman (1973)
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We’ve talked about it before: A lifetime to assemble material for the first album, two weeks to get the second one together. Compared with contemporary standards, the release/tour/release cycle of the time was ridiculously compressed; an album like Jackson Browne, today, would earn its author at least two or three years of downtime. Pressed to follow up his debut less than a year after its release, Browne was faced with a shortfall of new material, so he reached back into his catalog for much of For Everyman; as a result, though these songs aren’t what a sane person would call weak, they don’t form a truly cohesive whole.

A number of the songs had already been covered by other artists, while others would go on to be. The most famous of these is probably “Take It Easy,” the Glenn Frey collaboration that made piles of money for Browne (as co-writer) and The Eagles (as performers). The Eagles’ hit version is essentially a perfect interpretation of the song; narcissistic rock & roll playboys like Henley and Frey were uniquely qualified to provide it with just the right amount of snide self-absorption. Browne’s version, in contrast, sounds nothing so much as tired — even at 25, he had either perfected or been gifted with a voice that could communicate a lifetime of weariness. However, that’s about all it seems to be able to do. This isn’t a problem as long as he sticks to sorrowful laments like the brilliant “These Days” (download) (though I prefer Gregg Allman’s version), or cautiously optimistic ballads like “Ready or Not” (download).

Late for the Sky (1974)
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The three albums following it were his biggest sellers, but Late for the Sky is probably the one that most Browne fans (myself included) point to as their favorite. It’s probably his most melancholy set of songs, and that’s really saying something, but the lyrics and arrangements are among his best and most powerful. For me, it all rests on “For A Dancer” (download):

I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

The song is consummate Jackson Browne: Caustic, bitterly humorous poetry for lyrics; an achingly sad arrangement; production that’s at once organic, sympathetic, and slick. It won’t change your mind if you aren’t a fan — in fact, it’ll probably drive you up a wall — but if you’re the type of person for whom these lyrics form a cutting observation on the human condition, it’s sheer bliss:

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know

Hey, you know what kind of guy I am. I love this song so much, I’ll even toss in a live version (download).

I’ve gone on and on about “For A Dancer,” so I don’t have much room for the rest of the album, but it’s great too. I’m including “The Late Show” (download) for the brilliant line “When you know that you’ve got a real friend somewhere, suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear,” and not for the overwrought background vocals from — surprise! — The Eagles.

The Pretender (1976)
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If Late for the Sky presented Browne at his most emotionally trenchant, then The Pretender — released just two years later, and shortly following the suicide of his first wife — was (and arguably remains) his most sophisticated album. From the opening track, “The Fuse” (download), he displayed both a new depth as a composer and a willingness to explore new musical territory. It doesn’t always work — the cornpone mariachi of “Linda Paloma” is groanworthy — but on “The Fuse” and “Daddy’s Tune,” among others, the more muscular arrangements blend well with Jon Landau’s relatively adventurous production.

Browne had by this point established a practice of ending his albums with a Grand Statement, a song that encapsulated each album’s overall vibe, as well as summing up his state of mind. With this album, the title track (download) served that purpose, and its bitter, cynical resignation was a bit of a surprise, even for those who had identified with Browne’s fairly dour world view. The difference here was that, rather than railing against complacency, he seemed to be swallowing it whole. In the song, Browne surveys a barren, consumer-driven American landscape, but rather than lamenting the loss of his generation’s idealistic dreams, he shrugs: “I’m gonna be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender…say a prayer for the pretender, who started out so young and strong, only to surrender.”

Clearly, there was a heavy dose of sarcasm at play here, and yet Browne was certainly struggling with his own feelings of emptiness on several fronts. Not only was he dealing with personal loss and cultural alienation, but his creative well had begun to run dry. He’d had a relatively brief run, but one in which he’d scaled some unbelievable — and exhausting — artistic heights; his efforts had taken a lot out of him, and he’s arguably never quite recovered.

Running on Empty (1977)
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Running on Empty is the Jackson Browne album that casual fans seem to love best, and hardcore devotees dismiss; both camps have their points, but apart from either side of that argument, it’s an enjoyable, interesting album. “Enjoyable” because these songs — recorded on the road and on the fly — are looser and less labored than anything else in Browne’s catalog, and “interesting” because it’s possibly the best album ever made about being exhausted and out of inspiration.

Not that it’s a concept album, really, but even for a Jackson Browne record, Running on Empty is permeated with a particularly weary vibe. Even on the title track — which actually rocks a little — all Browne can say is that he’s out of steam; he doesn’t know why he keeps going, but he knows he isn’t going fast enough to stay ahead of himself. The song’s cheerful arrangement makes it sound like the protagonist still has some fight left in him (which no dout contributed to its chart success), but it’s an illusion. The rest of the album — much of which Browne didn’t write — is one long, naked lament, from the terrified laughter of “Cocaine” (download) to the emotional wasteland depicted in “Love Needs a Heart” (download).

He needed a break, and he took one; his next release wouldn’t come for another three years. Culturally speaking, those three years were almost a lifetime, and when he returned, Browne’s place in the landscape — in fact, the landscape itself — had changed visibly.

Hold Out (1980)
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And maybe he needed a longer break than this. Hold Out marks the beginning of what can justifiably be considered Jackson Browne’s fallow period — though he certainly continued to show sparks, both lyrically and musically, the 1980s and ’90s found him either casting about for a new focus or falling back unconvincingly on old tropes.

Part of the problem, in a way, may have been that he’s always cultivated an extremely self-aware songwriting voice. It made sense, therefore, for him to lead off his return from a three-year absence with a song about current cultural and musical developments; his audience almost would have expected some witty commentary on the state of things. “Disco Apocalypse,” though, is a dud, one of the few wholly false notes in Browne’s catalog. What was probably intended as a sly joke often comes across as petulant and out of touch. Another problem is Browne’s shifting taste in production — the drift toward contemporary AOR that began on The Pretender reaches full bloom here. Browne’s need to move away from the folksy acoustic stylings of his early albums is understandable, but it cost him no small amount of artistic individuality. For wide swaths of Hold Out, he sounds an awful lot like Dan Fogelberg. There was nothing inherently bad about sounding like Fogelberg — especially in 1980 — but Jackson Browne had pretty much always sounded like Jackson Browne before.

As a result, most of these songs — for instance, “Boulevard” (download) — are good, but not great. The high point, for me, is “Call It A Loan” (download), a brilliantly honest rumination on the childish games that grown-ups play in love. Good as the song is, though, it doesn’t sound terribly different from the best of what he’d done before, a looming problem that would define much of his output in the immediate future.

Lawyers in Love (1983)
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Eh. The less said about this one — from the giggle-inducing title to the mostly uninspired songs — the better. Losing multi-instrumentalist/musical foil/songwriting partner David Lindley to a solo career certainly hurt; Danny Kortchmar’s increased involvement yielded the album’s lone classic, “Tender is the Night” (download), but Lindley is such a singular talent that a certain amount of drop-off was inevitable. Producer Greg Ladanyi, as on Hold Out, coated the whole thing with a dull wash. The best song Browne released in ‘82-’83 isn’t even on this album: “Somebody’s Baby” (download), from the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack, is one of his overall best (and his biggest hit).

Lives in the Balance (1986)
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Browne went through something of a political awakening between Lawyers and Lives in the Balance, and his new outward gaze was reflected strongly in this set of material. They aren’t bad songs, even if they are occasionally delivered with a distracting sense of self-righteousness; the main problem with the album today is that it’s basically a polemic against the Reagan administration, and stands therefore as more of a historical artifact than anything else. For an artist who’d always had an unerring sense for universal, lasting themes, this came as something of a disappointment.

His newly political focus was also disappointing for a lot of his fans. This seems a little strange on the surface — after all, this was the dawn of an age in which Top 40 radio became an unofficial mouthpiece for Amnesty International — but the bottom line is that Browne just isn’t a great political songwriter. He does a lot of finger-pointing, which can make his anger pretty unattractive, and he very often fails to tie the issues he’s talking about down to a personal level. It’s preaching, and if that’s all you’re doing, even the choir will tune out eventually.

It’s still got a few great songs, though, including “In the Shape of a Heart” (download) and “Lawless Avenues” (download).

World in Motion (1989)
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As much as his new direction was a letdown for the audience, Lives in the Balance still went gold; the similar-yet-inferior World in Motion was the first Jackson Browne album to miss that mark. The low point is “When the Stone Begins to Turn,” five dreadful minutes of ham-fisted anti-apartheid lyrics draped limply over a Malibu reggae beat. As always, Browne’s heart was in the right place, but that isn’t the point.

Even so, the album includes Browne’s best politically charged song, “Anything Can Happen” (download). The production sounds dated today, but lyrically, he blends current events with personal conflicts with the type of aplomb you’d expect from the guy who wrote “The Pretender.” Nothing else here is as good, though “Enough of the Night” (download) is an entertaining, if slight, rewrite of past glories.

I’m Alive (1993)
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After World in Motion, Jackson Browne took some time off; he wasn’t an artist in search of an audience, exactly, but his star had fallen pretty dramatically in a decade, and he had personal concerns to deal with. Among these was the highly public implosion of his relationship with Darryl Hannah. It was a nasty breakup, one that culminated in Hannah accusing Browne of domestic violence; it was a charge few would have expected to be leveled at someone who’d built a career out of writing such sensitive songs, and it colored the public perception of him, at least in the short term.

Between all that and what amounted to a four-year break between albums, I’m Alive was a sly, appropriate title. The time off seemed to have done him good, too — though the album isn’t a full return to form, after a string of disappointments, it was close enough. These are certainly well-built songs; what’s missing, as many critics pointed out, is the raw emotional weight. Here’s where Browne’s songs aren’t just solidly crafted, they start to feel crafted. Is the title track (download) a manifesto, a self-conscious statement, or just a catchy pop tune? Does it matter?

Maybe, maybe not. For me, the distinction is this: I’m Alive is a good record. An enjoyable one. Late for the Sky is an important album. One doesn’t preclude the other, and it certainly isn’t necessary for an enjoyable album to be important, so is it unfair to hold Browne up to his old standards? I think it is, actually. A song like “All Good Things” (download) makes for good listening either way.

Looking East (1996)
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As unkind as I’ve been to Lawyers in Love and World in Motion, this is the Jackson Browne album I wish I could leave off the list. The songs were mostly written in collaboration with his band, which is a pretty rock & roll thing to do; problem is, the songs aren’t very good. “Information Wars” (download), in particular, might be the worst thing Browne’s ever done, unless the worst thing he’s ever done is actually “I’m the Cat” (download).

The Naked Ride Home (2002)
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This time around, it took six years for Browne to assemble a new batch of material; thankfully, it’s superior to Looking East in almost every way (the exception being the title, of course). The Naked Ride Home follows the same pattern as most of his post-’80s output: A few topical songs, sprinkled in among some songs about relationships. A lot of these are co-writes, too, which is a little troubling — with more than perhaps most songwriters, people buy Jackson Browne albums to hear his personal, undiluted perspective — and it does affect the overall quality, but not enough to ruin the album. “The Night Inside Me” (download) is a pleasantly moody rocker, and “My Stunning Mystery Companion” (download) is a nice acoustic closer, even if it does illustrate how far Browne has come from his days of finishing albums with Grand Statements.

There are some bum notes — “Casino Nation” is more of the high-handed social commentary we’ve grown to dread from Browne, and the title track finds him placing his emotional commentary in a bafflingly out-of-touch framework — but for the most part, he seems to be settling into his role as elder statesman pretty comfortably. Whether or not he has new things to say no longer matters; now it’s about how he uses his gifts as a songwriter and performer. What’s perhaps most encouraging about his last few albums is that he seems to be having more fun, and at times successfully tempers his naturally cynical outlook with light, or even humor. Maybe old dogs can teach themselves new tricks.

Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 (2005)
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Call this one a victory lap. From the opening crowd applause (extended and amplified for your listening pleasure), through the frequent spoken interludes, down to the largely safe song selection, this is a perfect reintroduction to — and affirmation of — Browne’s catalog. Nothing wrong with that; he’s earned it, and as acoustic live albums go, this isn’t bad. Certainly far from essential, but if you’re a fan who missed out on his recent solo acoustic tours, it’s a way to experience these songs in a new way (and cheaper than a concert ticket besides). The big draw is the inclusion of “The Birds of St. Marks” (download), an old Glenn Frey co-write that’s never seen the light of day on a Browne studio album, but the real joy is hearing some of the late-period stuff, like “The Barricades of Heaven” (download), rehabilitated.

More often than not, this type of album signals that the songwriter in question is slowing down (or has already stopped); in this case, however, it seems to function more as a gateway, both looking back and hinting ahead. Browne’s a free agent now, having left Elektra after 30 years, and is releasing Solo Acoustic on his own label. He says a new album is on the way for 2006. If these performances are any indication, he has a clearer sense of himself as an artist than he’s had for quite some time.

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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