Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Jackson Browne

  • Jackson Browne [Asylum, 1972] B
  • For Everyman [Asylum, 1973] B
  • Late for the Sky [Asylum, 1974] B-
  • The Pretender [Asylum, 1976] B
  • Running on Empty [Asylum, 1977] B+
  • Hold Out [Asylum, 1980] C+
  • Lawyers in Love [Asylum, 1983] C+
  • Lives in the Balance [Asylum, 1986] B
  • World in Motion [Elektra, 1989] B

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Jackson Browne [Asylum, 1972]
Many people I like like Browne. Me, I don't dislike him. The voice is pleasant, present, and unpretentious, and when I listen assiduously I perceive lyrics crafted with as much intelligence and human decency as any reasonable person could expect. Unfortunately, only critical responsibility induces me to listen assiduously. It's not just the blandness of the music, but of the ideas as well, each reinforcing the other. Even the meticulously structured requiem "Song for Adam" interests me more for the quality of Browne's concern than for its philosophical conclusions. When Bob Dylan's good, I admire him as much as I do William Carlos Williams. I admire Jackson Browne as much as, oh, John Peale Bishop, whose name hasn't entered my mind since I was an English major. B

For Everyman [Asylum, 1973]
The singer-songwriter folk are lining up behind this one as album of the year, but though I'm intrigued by Janet Maslin's suggestion that Browne fuses New York and California sensibilities, sometimes I'm afraid all she means is that he can read. Even as he lists toward the pretentious and the vague, the reflective evenness of Browne's delivery sets up an expectation of cogency that on this album is satisfied only by such relatively unambitious songs as "These Days," "Red Neck Friend," and the charming "Ready or Not." Which save it for me. B

Late for the Sky [Asylum, 1974]
Browne reminds me of Nixon: no matter how hard I listen to his pronouncements--important sociologically if nothing else, right?--my mind begins to wander. They're getting longer, too; the eight songs here average over five minutes. I admit that the longest is also the best, an intricate extended metaphor called "Fountain of Sorrow." But his linguistic gentility is inappropriate, his millenarianism is self-indulgent, and only if he sang as good as Dylan Thomas might I change my mind. B-

The Pretender [Asylum, 1976]
This is an impressive record, but a lot of the time I hate it; my grade is an average, not a judgment. Clearly Jon Landau has gotten more out of Browne's voice than anyone knew was there, and the production jolts Ol' Brown Eyes out of his languor again and again. But languor is Browne's best mask, and what's underneath isn't always so impressive. The shallowness of his kitschy doomsaying and sentimental sexism is well-known, but I'm disappointed as well in his depth of craft. How can apparently literate people mistake a received metaphor like "sleep's dark and silent gate" for interesting poetry or gush over a versifier capable of such rhyming dictionary pairings as "pretender" and "ice cream vendor" (the colloquial term, JB, is "ice cream man")? Similar shortcomings flaw the production itself--the low-register horns on "Daddy's Tune" complement its somber undertone perfectly, but when the high blare kicks in at the end the song degenerates into a Honda commercial. Indeed, at times I've wondered whether some of this isn't intended as parody, but a sense of humor has never been one of Browne's virtues. B

Running on Empty [Asylum, 1977]
Out of the studio--this was recorded on tour--Jackson sounds relaxed verbally, vocally, even instrumentally. He cuts his own meager melodies with nice ones by Danny O'Keefe and Danny Kortchmar. He does a funny and far from uncritical version of "Cocaine" and a loving and far from unfunny version of "Stay." I consider this his most attractive album. But his devotees may consider the self-effacement a deprivation. B+

Hold Out [Asylum, 1980]
Never hep to his jive, I'm less than shocked by the generalized sentimentality disillusioned admirers descry within these hallowed tracks, though the one about the late great Lowell George (think it's him, any other El Lay rocker die recently?) is unusually rank. I grant that the sincere vocals and rising organ chords do make my heart swell in spite of itself once in a while. But I wonder whether the lost kids (i.e., Lost Kids) in "Boulevard" wear mohawks, and whether JB will ever find it in himself to sing to them. Inspirational Line: "That girl was sane." C+

Lawyers in Love [Asylum, 1983]
A satire on, celebration of, and lament for the upper-middle classmates an Orange County liberal knows like he knows his neighbor's backyard, the title song is a coup: poignant, droll, political about his own experience rather than some victim's. And dat's dat. Anticlimax: the yearningly Springsteenian--get this title--"For a Rocker." C+

Lives in the Balance [Asylum, 1986]
These antiwar songs give him plenty in common with Holly Near--he even puts nueva canción musicians on the title track. While Browne goes in for higher octane folk-rock, I'll pass on the remixes if you don't mind. The difference is that Browne shouldn't be doing this--however goody-goody his fans or political his recent rep, he's a pop star who's stretching his audience and endangering his market share merely by making such a statement in 1986. And he's thought hard getting here--not only does his way with words render these lyrics somewhat deeper than Holly Near's, but his moralistic put-downs have that edge of righteous anger nobody's yet found the formula for. B

World in Motion [Elektra, 1989]
May he remain a protest singer in perpetuity, and not just because I wish his love songs were history. But n.b.: the two standouts are "My Personal Revenge," a pledge of forgiveness by Sandinista hardliner Tomás Borge, and Little Steven's--yes, Little Steven's, his stock always improves when he doesn't sing--"I Am a Patriot." You think the secret flaw of the archetypal singer-songwriter might be songwriting? B