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November 23, 2004

Seminal Browne album foretells doom and gloom

Long before the members of Dashboard Confessional were even twinkles in their mamas' eyes, Jackson Browne was writing lyrics more emo than they could ever dream. Considered by many to be the quintessential sensitive singer-songwriter of the 1970s, Jackson Browne is often overlooked, as he has produced few hit singles on his own. The live medley of his own "Loadout" and the Zodiacs' "Stay" is one of his only songs that gets much airplay, aside from some other hits he co-wrote, like the Eagles' "Take It Easy." But while Browne has no real standout singles, it is difficult to turn off one of his early albums after they start, as they are carefully crafted masterpieces that are meant to play from beginning to end. It's no mistake that he has few top 10 singles, but several platinum albums.

Arguably Browne's best work is his 1974 opus, Late for the Sky. Here Browne shows off his ability as not only a musician but as a poet, as he converts personal problems into universal sentiments in the most eloquent manner.

The album's first four songs work together around the ideas of reality versus perception, dealing with the problems of romance, loneliness, and uncertainty. The chorus of the title track (featured in Scorsese's Taxi Driver) kicks off the ideas with an epiphany of sorts, lamenting, "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?"

Following "Late for the Sky" is "Fountain of Sorrow," a ballad that would fit comfortably in any poetry textbook. Browne plays with the rhyme and meter of a ballad with passionate wordplay, like the first lines, "Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer/I was taken by a photograph of you/There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more/but they didn't show your spirit quite as true."

The true beauty of the song, like the others on the album, is that Browne doesn't sacrifice music for lyrics. The album features Browne on piano and guitar, but is highlighted by David Lindley on the guitar, slide, and fiddle. Together they form glorious epics that inspire reflection and contemplation. The songs average longer than five minutes each, and the two straightforward rockers, while still great tunes, seem out of place.

It's the first of these rockers, "The Road and the Sky," that breaks up the spiritual atmosphere of the first four songs. Later, "Walking Slow" provides a moment of happiness before the ecological disasters foreshadowed in the album's final work. And while the fast beat of the songs seems foreign to the album, the lyrics remain true to its core, including the verse from "The Road and the Sky": "Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead? They're going to wash this planet clean like the Bible said. Now you can hold on steady and try to be ready/ but everyone's gonna get wet. Don't think it won't happen just because it hasn't happened yet." Quite frankly, these lyrics might have been a little too loaded for the pop music of the time.

The song in between these two, "For a Dancer," might be the album's best, although it is often overlooked for some of the flashier numbers, much like Browne himself. Written for a recently deceased friend, the song confronts death head-on in all of its uncertainty. It builds up for the first two minutes until Browne finally embraces his sorrow and celebrates his friend, telling him to dance into heaven and the unknown.

While there are survivors after its apocalypse, the final track, "Before the Deluge," predicts the end of our world as we know it. Several songs, like the aforementioned lyrics of "The Road and the Sky," allude to this end as the album progresses. While some may think that an ecological disaster is a strange end to the personal problems Browne reflects upon in the first half of the album, part of the excellence of the album is that there are clues to such a finish throughout.

Browne's work with MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) and other environmentally-concerned groups during the '80s was a reason that his '70s music got buried under the refuse of classic rock. His '80s albums were often politically-charged, and Browne was shunned by DJs until he returned to form in the early '90s. Browne's second through fifth albums (For Everyman to Running on Empty) are a string of works of art. Each one plays off the last, yet each explores a different, somber theme. In the end, there are few who can convey emotions like Jackson Browne, and it is a shame that his music is often forgotten because of his very public political affiliations.