The Very Best of Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne was the J.D. Salinger of the 1970s. He was raised in LAand OC and playing the local folk-rock club circuit ("Life became the Paradox, the Bear, the Rouge et Noir/And the stretch of road running to LA" is the way he remembers his 1960s in "The Barricades of Heaven") before making it big as a songwriter for others (Nico, the Eagles). On his own, Browne became part of the LA singer/songwriter movement, a legendarily wimpy scene if you think of David Crosby or J.D. Souther but big-tent enough to attract such red-blooded rockers as Warren Zevon and Neil Young. Browne's early albums were acoustic-guitar- or piano-based, with lots of air in the slow-paced arrangements. His singing voice was a sincere, unaffected extension of his speaking voice, and his lyrics—questioning, confessional, confounded by the complexities of love, lyrics you could learn from—were perfectly suited for vulnerable teenagers who a decade earlier might have turned to The Catcher in the Rye for emotional solace, kids who'd grown up on rock but had more respect for their own sensitivities than the kids who bludgeoned theirs at Black Sabbath concerts. (One of Browne's greatest songs, "Before the Deluge," in fact contains a reference to hands reaching for "the golden ring," which is one of the climactic images of Salinger's novel.) The rap on Browne is that he abandoned the personal and "went political"—i.e., sacrificed what he was good at and ruined his commercial viability—starting with the album Lives in the Balance, but you can trace his social conscience from way back. In fact, starting with "For Everyman" in 1973 and running through "Before the Deluge," "The Pretender," "Running On Empty," "Hold On Hold Out," "Lawyers in Love," "Lives in the Balance" and "Looking East" is one of the most complex, sustained chronicles of the fallout of 1960s idealism in pop music: from hippie to yuppie, from open-faced romanticism to making love with "our dark glasses on," from hope for a communal Everyman to acceptance of the vigilant struggle required to battle an atomized capitalist society hell-bent on militarism and environmental destruction. Outside of "Running on Empty," he's never been a convincing rocker, but in the best of these songs, he avoids preaching and just gives us the vivid drama of a troubled American discovering that his political passions derive from utterly personal roots. That's not to say that Browne's later catalog doesn't contain some plum relationship songs: "In the Shape of a Heart," "Sky Blue and Black" and "The Naked Ride Home" demonstrate Browne hasn't lost the knack. In his speech inducting Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, Bruce Springsteen said that if the Beach Boys presented California as paradise, "Jackson gave us paradise lost." You have to know what paradise is to know what it means to lose it, and that double knowledge has been Browne's artistic joy and burden—and the legacy that emerges on this career-retrospective CD.
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