In preparation for an article I'm writing about him in Paste, I've been listening to Jackson Browne's first three albums -- his eponymous debut (AKA Saturate Before Using), For Everyman, and Late for the Sky. Does anyone listen to these albums?
Along with Joni Mitchell's Blue and For the Roses, these are the quintessential SoCal confessional singer/songwriter albums, and at one time they were among my most cherished musical possessions. It's odd to come back to them thirty-five (or more) years down the line and hear them in a quite different context than when I originally heard them. I still think they're pretty great. Although the confessional mopery heard here has become something of a musical cliche (see the whole Emo genre), Jackson did it first (or close to first), and he still may have done it best. Late for the Sky, in particular, still sounds like a perfect album to me. It's beautifully poetic, soulful, and it goes places where most songwriters never dare to go -- in this case, the exploration of numbness and sorrow that characterizes your life when, say, your wife commits suicide (which is what happened to Jackson. It's like Courtney Love's Live Through This, but with, you know, an actual songwriter). There's some harrowing writing here.
I quit paying attention to Jackson Browne after Running On Empty. That wasn't a terrible album, but it wasn't all that good either (although, naturally, it was his biggest seller -- see U2, REM, etc.) , and it didn't bode well for Jackson's future as far as I was concerned. I hated the fact that suddenly millions of people were buying Jackson Browne albums. I liked him better when he was pretty much the exclusive property of me and a few of my close friends. That was also about the time that people like The Clash and Elvis Costello came along, and my attention was diverted in that direction and away from the old hippies with acoustic guitars.
In any case, aside from a few assorted songs here and there, I haven't pulled out those old scratchy Jackson Browne albums in almost thirty years. Listening to his first three albums in their entirety again, back to back to back, has been quite a revelation. I thought that maybe I'd hear an overly earnest guy whose songs were typical of the age in which they were created, and that hadn't aged very well. But his songs have aged just fine. In fact, in some ways they might connect a little more deeply now that I'm eligible for the AARP discount. I hadn't lost anyone I loved when I first heard those songs. Now I have. It's heartbreaking writing, and although he could have easily turned maudlin and manipulative, he didn't. I'm staggered by the lines in "Fountain of Sorrow" (on Late for the Sky) about looking at old photographs of his now dead wife, and finding the one that wasn't the most flattering, but that best captured her spirit. Because that's what you do in that situation. You don't care about the glamour shots. You're trying to find something, anything, to remind you of a real human being who is gone, and you look for shards of a human spirit. There are so many lines like that on those first three albums. They're just true. It's been a great pleasure rediscovering this music.