Review: Jackson Browne, ‘Downhill From Everywhere’ – A Voice We All Need

“I’m still out here under the streetlight, baby, I’m still lookin’ for something in the night…if all I find is freedom that’s alright…” – Jackson Browne, “Still Looking For Something”

The Rock Chick and I loaded up the car and headed for points West to see the daughter this last weekend. While I was out living my Jack Kerouac “On The Road” fantasy I saw that Jackson Browne released a new album Downhill From Everywhere. I also saw David Crosby had released a new album as well… Jackson Browne and David Crosby both releasing an album on the same day… what is this, 1973? I can’t believe it’s been seven years since Browne last released a studio LP, the late career gem Standing In the Breach. Had B&V existed back then we definitely would have written about that one. Since 2000, Browne has only released four studio LPs, an average of 5 and a quarter years between each one. Needless to say when a singer/songwriter/producer like Jackson Browne drops his first album in damn near a decade, it’s a big deal. For those of you who only know him from “Somebody’s Baby” on the soundtrack for Fast Times At Ridgemont High, there is so much more. He’s had quite a storied career.

I first heard or learned about Jackson Browne the way most people did in the 70s, from rock n roll radio. I can remember prior to my rock awakening, hearing “Dr My Eyes” or “The Pretender” on the stereo at the neighborhood swimming pool when my mother would careen into the parking lot, barely stop and shove us from the car. She always said she was going to be back by 3:00pm and we should be waiting… but it always kinda felt like she might just keep driving and we’d never see her again. Jackson Browne specialized in beautifully sung introspective songs about love, relationships, life and death. These were not topics a pubescent 13 year old was into. I wanted songs with loud guitar about girls and more girls. It was my brother – who as always was out in front of me – who brought a Jackson Browne LP into the house, 1980’s Hold Out. Critics derided it as “self-indulgent” but it’s his only number 1 LP… I loved sitting in my brother’s room listening to “Boulevard” or “Call It A Loan.” While “Hold On Hold Out” with it’s cheesy spoken word part was cringe-worthy I always liked “That Girl Could Sing” and the lyric “She was a friend to me when I needed one, wasn’t for her I don’t know what I’d done.” Even as a teenage virgin I hoped to meet a woman like that.

It wasn’t until college when I was infinitely more secure in my musical tastes that I delved into Browne’s catalog. I picked up his live album Running On Empty which was actually a concept album about the road. I also picked up his debut LP, a seminal singer/songwriter album and of course, The Pretender. His first five LPs are essential listening. After what was considered a disappointing outing on Hold Out, he followed up with Lawyers In Love. The title track was a joke that didn’t land. He has a great sense of humor evinced on songs like “Rosie” or “Ready Or Not” but people didn’t get “Lawyers In Love.” Browne’s songs were always highly personal but after that LP he veered hard into politics. He’d been an activist for a while and had even formed MUSE, Musicians United for Safe Energy and hosted the “No Nukes Concert.” I bought 1986’s Lives In the Balance and 1989’s World In Motion but eventually sold both of them at the Used Record Store. World In Motion was a tough listen… Lives In the Balance despite being political had some great songs.

After a rather cold string – two LPs that weren’t up to his early work and two LPs that were borderline strident – I drifted away from Jackson Browne. His “comeback” LP the very personal, break-up album I’m Alive is a phenomenal record. It really set him onto a stretch of great LPs. Everything he’s done since has been really strong – the kind of LPs B&V were founded on. I really got back into Jackson Browne on The Naked Ride Home from 2002. I highly recommend that disc for everyone. After I’m Alive Browne seemed to come to the realization that he’s better off mixing the personal with the political to make a point. When he balances those two viewpoints in one song, its magic. Time The Conqueror and Standing In the Breach are late career gems… although the latter is the pick of the litter for me, Time The Conqueror veered slightly too far into the political.

In the early 90s I say I drifted away from Jackson Browne’s music but in reality I just drifted back to his early LPs. I finally went out and bought his 2nd and 3rd LPs on CD, For Everyman and Late For the Sky. I was living in a crappy 1-bedroom apartment on Brush Creek, working a dead end job and fresh off a break up when For Everyman and Late For the Sky went into high rotation on my stereo. I was living next door to an exotically beautiful Egyptian woman who, when her boyfriend visited, can be best described by Paul Simon, “Couple in the next room, bound to win a prize.” I was laying awake late at night lamenting my life choices but the neighbor lady was celebrating life at full volume. I was sitting in front of my stereo one day when there was a knock on the door… I turned down the music and opened the door. There stood the screaming Egyptian woman. “What is this beautiful music I always hear coming from your apartment?” Stunned, I sort of mumbled, “Jackson Browne, Late For The Sky.” I sensed she wanted to come in and listen but for some reason I didn’t invite her in… Oh, a life of missed opportunities. Perhaps she could have “been a friend to me when I needed one…” I guess I’ll never know.

I actually saw Browne live for the first time in the middle 90s on the Looking East. He played a show down at the Liberty Memorial. He was amazing that night. I remember he dedicated the song “Fountain of Sorrow” to his ex girlfriend Darryl Hannah. He said, “I’d like to dedicate this song to Darryl Hannah who seems to hate me now…” I went down the rabbit hole on that whole situation this last week… I still don’t know what happened. I saw him again opening up for Tom Petty and he delivered again. If you get a chance to see Browne and his band live, buy the ticket.

Having been seven years since his last LP, as I mentioned before, hearing Downhill From Everywhere is like getting an email from an old friend you haven’t chatted with in a while. Browne’s songwriting chops are still very much in place. His voice is ageless. He’s backed on this LP by Greg Leisz and Val McCallum on guitar, venerable Bob Glaub on bass, Jeff Young on keyboards, and Mauricio Lewak on drums. These guys play like an actual backing band vs a bunch of studio hired guns. Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills who have been Browne’s back up vocalists for a long time are back for Downhill From Everywhere. The thing I’ve always loved about Jackson’s music is that he’s always searching for something, for answers. It’s a world view I can understand. He’s also a consummate craftsman – which some critics use as a put-down – but his records always sound great. His early albums all had David Lindley’s slide guitar all over them and McCallum and Leisz capture that same vibe here.

There is so much to like here. The opening track, “Still Looking For Something” is probably my favorite track on the album. It’s a soulful mediation on the search for truth. It’s a feeling I can relate to…I feel like I too am “still out here under the streelight…” “My Cleveland Heart” is a rock n roll song. Why Cleveland and not Detroit? I don’t know. Maybe its a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame reference? It’s a classic Browne rocker. “Minutes To Downtown” is a beautiful song about finding love later in life which more than a few of us can relate to. “The Dreamer” is the perfect example of Browne finding the right mix between the political and the personal. It’s a song in support of the DACA dreamers but told through the lens of a young girl. It’s simply put, a brilliant song. “We don’t see half the people around us, but we see enemies who surround us.” That line pretty much sums up the Fox News crowd… The ballad “A Little Too Soon To Tell” is a classic Jackson Browne song that sounds like lazy, late summer on the porch. “Song For Barcelona” is a track that transports me back to that wonderful city that I hope to return to some day… perhaps to live out my twilight years… “Love Is Love” comes across like a beautiful mantra.

There are only a few moments that miss the mark for me. He does a duet with Leslie Mendelson, “A Human Touch.” I think it was recorded for a movie. Too much Leslie not enough Jackson. “Until Justice Is Done” isn’t a bad political track but it doesn’t really take me anywhere. I dig the sentiment I just can’t get into the song. It sounds like it was something written for a protest rally and I’ve been to plenty but can I dance to it? Other than these slightly “off” moments, this is an amazingly strong late career record.

This is one of the strongest albums of 2021 so far. If you’ve haven’t heard Downhill From Everywhere or any of Jackson’s late period LPs, especially Standing In The Breach or The Naked Ride Home I urge you to seek those out as well. This is a prime example of a classic artists who continues to put out incredibly strong, late career music that deserves a listen. I just hope Jackson comes around a little more often, he’s a voice we need. Pick this one up, pour something strong, get out on the porch and groove. You never know…the pretty neighbor girl might just knock on your door.

Cheers!

LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

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I had been hearing for a while that Springsteen had cut a solo album, heavily influenced by Jimmy Webb, whose songs were made famous predominantly by the legend Glen Campbell. The most famous of those tracks was “Wichita County Lineman.” Interestingly enough, I saw the Stones in Wichita one time with my old college buddy Drew. The Stones did “Wichita County Lineman” and Mick said, “Everybody who plays Wichita probably plays this track, but here’s our version…” Drew said, “Actually, nobody ever does that song here.”

Hearing Springsteen was doing a Jimmy Webb/Southern California-70’s style album had a lot of people concerned this was going to be a country album. A lot of artists like say, Bon Jovi have done a country album late in their career as a crass commercial move. I will give country fans credit where credit is due… they still buy albums and CDs. And if they could they’d probably still be buying 8-tracks. Well, that’s only a theory…tip of the Stetson to you country folk out there. Hearing Western Stars and spending the last few weeks with it, I can tell you, it’s not country. It has more in common with Burt Bacharach’s sound to me.

I’ve had a real mixed relationship with Springsteen’s “solo” work, ie, his work without the E Street Band. I grew up in the midwest, which was Springsteen flyover country. He was big in the Northeast and the Ohio Valley… even down the eastern seaboard. He was big on the edges of the country. Chicago and California embraced him. In Kansas City he wasn’t really that big of a deal until later. Maybe radio programmers thought he was too “east coast,” whatever that means.

In 1979 I absolutely fell in love with The River. It was the first album with songs that got significant airplay in KC and so I made that huge double-LP investment and bought it. It was all over stylistically and I love every track on that album. I just loved the whole concept of this gang – The E Street Band. It all sounded so cool…and yes, I liked the way they dressed, homeless chic. Where was this E Street, and how do I get there? I slowly worked my way backwards through his wonderful early catalog. I was just back home from a very difficult first semester in college during my freshman year for Christmas break and was in the mall with my then-girlfriend and we passed by one of the record stores. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a rack full of Nebraska albums. I hadn’t heard any of the music, or anything about the album, but it was Springsteen, hells yes! I dropped my girl’s hand and went lunging into the record store. I was not emotionally prepared for the bleak music that poured out of my speakers when I got home that day. I realize Nebraska is a classic, but it took me a long, long time to appreciate it. You won’t hear that album at a party.

The next solo album by Springsteen was Tunnel of Love. There were cameos by the band, most notably Nils Lofgren’s amazing guitar solo on the title track, but it was a Springsteen solo project. I love that album, it’s a masterpiece. After that tour Springsteen went solo and fired the E Street Band. The resulting two albums, released on the same day, Human Touch/Lucky Town were a bit of a mess. Human Touch was overly produced and sounded labored. Lucky Town was lyrically rich but plodding musically. I still think there is one good album hidden in there… (iPod Playlist – Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ LPs at 25: The B&V Single LP Edit). There are some great songs scattered across those two discs.

His next solo project was The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Other than the title track, I don’t think I’ve heard a track from that bleak album since…although “Youngstown” was a live staple. Devils and Dust recorded after he’d reunited with the E Street Band was topical but a truly great album. Like I say, it’s been an up and down road for me on Bruce’s solo stuff. All of his records have gems on them, but on his solo stuff you have to dig a little. Wrecking Ball certainly had a few great songs but overall, not my favorite Springsteen.

Western Stars,  while not country, is certainly country tinged… you’ll hear a pedal steel on a number of the tracks. This album, and I’d call it a genre exercise, is more of a sepia-toned, Southern California, 70s singer-songwriter album. There are strings on each track here that would make a young Elton John jealous. Springsteen’s voice, along with the strings, are front and center on this record. The other instrumentation is almost superfluous. You certainly aren’t going to get any screaming guitar solos here. He sings his ass off on this album. The vocal on There Goes My Miracle may be the most ambitious he’s ever done. These songs are, as the kids say, as melodic a.f. Sonically, this is as about as far away as you could get from Nebraska. It’s the lush kind of album you just don’t hear anymore.

This album conjures wide-open spaces, specifically in desert parts of the country like southern California, Nevada or Arizona. There is no social commentary in these songs as has been his more recent m.o. The songs are filled with drifters or men who are on the downward slope of life and somewhat down and out but the album is far from a bummer. Many of the protagonists are preoccupied with lost love or lost opportunity. The sun seems to always be going down. Most of the characters on this album could be described as a troubled Wichita lineman… There’s a sense of movement, or rather desperate men racing away from something… or finding escape through hard work under a big sky… with the past always near behind. I’ll be the first to admit, this album is somewhat monochromatic. It’s like Picasso’s blue period. Say man, try a little red.

The album opens with a pair of drifter tracks. “Hitchhikin'” opens the album and the first thing you hear is Springsteen’s voice, a perfect place to start. That leads into “Wayfarer,” which is the story of the hitchhiker if he had a car. While the first track has a nice acoustic guitar driving it, the second is all strings. The down on your luck theme continues later with the title track which tells the tale of a has-been actor, trading on his past glory for chicks and free drinks. “Drive Fast (Stuntman)” is the story of, obviously, a stuntman, near the end, hobbling around on “pins in my ankle.” “North of Nashville” finds a singer who never quite made it in the Country Capitol. All the protagonists mourn a lost love. While the songs all explore similar themes they’re all unique.

Lost love as a theme continues on “Sundown” “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel.” As a man who is no stranger to heartbreak I found these tracks all very moving. Although even I’ll admit “Stones” gets a tad repetitive. “Chasing Wild Horses” is the story of a guy with a temper issue who wears himself out at work each day to avoid fighting anybody at night. Like I said, its a bunch of troubled Wichita County Linemen…

The best tracks here, to me, include the first single, “Hello Sunshine.” That’ll be the track on the greatest hits packages going forward. It’s a classic tune, Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’. “There Goes My Miracle” is my favorite in a long list of strong vocal performances. Lately, and I don’t know why, I wake up with the refrain in my head, “there goes my miracle, walkin’ away.” On “Tucson Train” a man “down and out in Frisco” waits expectantly on his lover to arrive on the train to make everything better… why she isn’t taking the bus which is cheaper and faster, we’ll never know. I love a good train song and this one is the happiest track here.

There’s really only one song on this album I don’t like. It’s the change of pace, upbeat, Tex-Mex (almost zydeco) track, “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe.” It’s a bit like “Mary’s Place” on The Rising. It’s meant to be a bit of sunshine amongst a group of troubled characters but it just ends up being annoying. He could have easily cut that track and I’d have been happy.

This album makes me feel like I’m cruising down Highway 1 in California, top down with my shirt unbuttoned, with the wind blowing through my long hair and sideburns like it’s 1973, Aqua-Velva oozing from my pours, cowboy hat on the seat next to me. That’s just my 70s vibe, others might feel differently. I really like this album and urge everybody to check it out, despite it’s monochromatic bent. This is the most engaging, interesting thing Springsteen has done in quite a while.

Cheers!