Monday, June 26, 2006

The Underrated Jackson Browne

Next to American singer-songwriter icons like Dylan, Young and Springsteen, Southern Californian veteran Jackson Browne would seem almost insignifcant in stature. But no mistake, Browne is one of the most virtuosic and observant songwriters around, never mind the fact that he's perpetually, woefully underrated by the general public.

From his enthusiastic, strident eponymous debut in 1972 to the reflective 2002 masterpiece "The Naked Ride Home", Browne has rightfully documented social upheaval, political chicanery, and the travails of life and love through a host of well-regarded albums. While Browne's songs might not be regular fixtures on the charts (with the exception of the relatively lightweight "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" theme song "Somebody's Baby"), they are brilliantly elliptical, intuitively emotional and wholly accessible, even though their sheer literateness might be too much for the ADD-suffering MTV generation to take in.

Here is a list of songs that effortlessly display Browne's sharp, vivid songwriting acumen:

1. SKY BLUE AND BLACK (I'm Alive, 1993)
Love songs don't come any better - or more expressive and honest - than this absolutely devastating account of the recognition of the end of a relationship. Framed within a simple musical structure (plainspoken piano chords, an earnest electric-guitar solo, and a recurring, memorable six-note synth hook), Browne details the letting-go of a former love through a powerful, yet empathic statement of final, forgiving acceptance that incorporates imagistic everyday depictions (“In the fragments of the songs carried down the wind from some radio”, “In the murmuring of the city in the distance ominous and low”) and simple, heartfelt statements (“If you ever need holding, call my name and I’ll be there”, “I’d have fought the world for you, if I thought you wanted me to”). Arguably the most open-hearted and beautiful song in Browne’s impressive repertoire.

2. THE BARRICADES OF HEAVEN (Looking East, 1996)
Perhaps Browne's response to Don Henley's rather bleak lost-youth anthem "The Boys of Summer", the strident "The Barricades of Heaven" takes a steady, easy-going approach to saying goodbye to the excesses of yesteryears, without any hints of mawkishness or bitterness. Crystalline, clear-cut acoustic-guitar riffs, instinctive B3 organ solos and a sturdy backbeat form the basis of this track, which sounds perversely optimistic, despite the sometimes-ominous imagery incorporated in the lyrics. But when Browne boldly proclaims, "Got to bring your redemption when you come, to the barricades of heaven where I'm from", it sounds like he's refusing to go into the good night without putting up a good fight.

3. LATE FOR THE SKY (Late for the Sky, 1974)
Forlornly miserable, and swathed in a shroud of bleak hopelessness, this downcast morning-after lamentation plays like the opposite side of the coin to the later "Sky Blue and Black". Deservedly taking its own time detailing the slow-motion breakdown of a relationship, this sober piano ballad splendidly encapsulates romantic disenchantment and disappointment in its sometimes too-close-for-comfort songwords ("Awake again I can't pretend, and I know I'm alone, and close to the end of the feeling we've known", "How long have I been sleeping, how long have I been drifting alone through the night, how long have I been dreaming I could make it right, if I closed my eyes and tried with all my might to be the one you need"). Browne has never sounded more glum and pessimistic than on here. An interesting aside: "Late for the Sky" would take on a decidedly darker shade when Martin Scorsese used it as the musical accompaniment to the scene of Robert de Niro's emotional and mental collapse in the evergreen "Taxi Driver".

4. FOUNTAIN OF SORROW (Late for the Sky, 1974)
A graceful ode to an unrequited love, "Fountain of Sorrow" is a deliberate, peaceful-sounding piano ballad that belies the desperation behind it. When Browne nonchalantly says, "What I was seeing wasn't what was happening at all, although for a while, our path did seem to climb", he is effectively echoing the exact sentiments of millions of rejected suitors the world over. But he does dispense some thoughtful advice later on: "When you see through love's illusions, there lies the danger, and your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool". Love might be perennially overrated and not all that it's cracked up to be, but at least fools in love everywhere can take comfort in the wisdom of these words.

5. THE NAKED RIDE HOME (The Naked Ride Home, 2002)
Arguably Browne's most personal song since "Late for the Sky", the title track to his masterful 2002 album simultaneously takes stock of the effects of ageing, the complexities of life, and the rediscovery of an old love, all couched within an appropriately nocturnal-sounding musical template that features some superior lap-steel guitar work. The lyrics might occasionally be metaphoric ("On that freeway the light was receding, her beauty a sight so misleading, I failed to hear the heart that was beating alone"), but the general sentiment is unmistakable: a life without predicaments is a life not worth living.

6. MY STUNNING MYSTERY COMPANION (The Naked Ride Home, 2002)
This laidback, tranquil coda to 2002's "The Naked Ride Home" is a subtle declaration of affection to a new love. However, it's not so much a gallant proclamation of undying, youthful ardour, but more of a quietly confident acknowledgement of how after long years of searching, that one final presence (or if you like, the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel) who finally accepts you for what you are, will stand by you through thick and thin (to use an overused cliche) for the rest of your days. It's all laid down in some of Browne's most sanguine verses ("I hear you laughing and somehow, the past just disappears", "What with all my expectations long abandoned, my solitary nature notwithstanding, you're the one who pulled me out of that crash landing").