Sun Spin: Jackson Browne


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Now there's a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs
Still I look for the beauty in songs
To fill my head and lead me on

Some albums slip past our defenses, touching places we might rather have left alone, tender spots that never quite scab over. While perhaps not always consciously welcome, it is these albums that become the bedrock of our listening, informing our lives and offering cold comfort and understanding when both are in short supply in the “real world." Jackson Browne's third album, Late For The Sky (1974) is such a marvel of unvarnished honesty flecked with romantic understanding, true empathy and poignant awareness of human frailty. The intervening 35 years have done nothing to diminish the instantaneous emotional zap this record produces when the needle hits the groove. All its quietude and wise-beyond-its-years resonance (he was just 25 when he recorded it) is preserved in music crafted with extraordinary attention to detail in every respect.

With angels sleeping beside him along hitchhiked roadsides, Browne wrestles with torn and empty dreams and how one goes on when their tank is empty. It's a place all of us reach from time to time but few of us possess the acumen and insight to turn our own low tides into something that reaches other's shores. Where it's easy to lash out in such moments, blame someone else for our circumstance, Browne spreads it around, never sparing himself a healthy measure:

Now the things that I remember seem so distant and so small
Though it hasn't really been that long a time
What I was seeing wasn't what was happening at all
Although for a while, our path did seem to climb

Late For The Sky is one of the templates for the so-called California Country sound, where Nashville's slick slide meets the sativa vibe of oceans, forests and dirty blue jean, long-haired thinking. The album is a direct descendent of what Gram Parsons was moving towards and a mighty influence on future generations, a less acknowledged but just as crucial instigator as Neil Young's Harvest. In some ways, Browne is even more successful in marrying musical sophistication and grand scale to hyper-personal themes than Young's early attempts on say his debut. The way the words, ideas and music intertwine here is breathtaking and never seems forced. Like the best sets, there's an internal logic that ties everything into intricate knots, where each element is as it should be. Rock is generally a touch messier (and perhaps happily so) but artistry of this level brings to mind John Barth's line, “In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity."

Passion lies at the center of Late For The Sky, which examines relationships with clear eyes ("when you see through loves illusions, there lies the danger/ And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool") and the individual's place in the universe ("dreaming I can make it right/ if I closed my eyes and tried with all my might"). Track after track explicates some heart truth or thought stirred staring at night skies, alone and wondering. It is an exposed place for any writer and yet Browne sings in a sharp, strong voice of things usually held close to the chest, sharing of himself in a way that aids our own self-examination, his bravery perhaps, if we're lucky, becoming our own. And always without undue sentimentality:

Everyone I've ever known has wished me well
Anyway that's how it seems, it's hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you're doing
'Cause that's easier than letting on how little they could care

Frequently it is David Lindley's exquisite guitar work that speaks directly to these deep places in us, bypassing language to vibrate our soul with pure, emotion soaked sound. And he's equally gorgeous and effective on violin (dig his soaring through closer “Before The Deluge"), but it's most often his unbelievably powerful slide work that takes one's breath away. The cry he unleashes at the beginning of “Farther On" is every bit the equal of Lightnin' Hopkins or any other celebrated bluesman, but Lindley never falls back on blues cliches, forging a new language inside rock with his slicing poetry.

The whole core band - Doug Haywood (bass), Jai Winding (keys), Larry Zack (drums), Lindley (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, steel guitar and fiddle) and Browne's own guitar and keys - is pretty damn together, playing with intuitive grace further amplified by tremendous backing vocals from Don Henley, Terry Reid, J.D. Souther and Dan Fogelberg. Long before he was cutting his own albums, Browne was a respected Los Angeles songwriter whose tunes had been cut by a host of late '60s/early '70s luminaries. Even at his young age, he was already a respected man about town, and the pros gathered around him here reflect that.

It would probably be enough to score a spot on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time if it were just a king size bummer fest, but Late For The Sky turns on its heels midway. The second side positively skips, finding fortitude and black tinged jubilation that feels real, sustainable, genuine:

Walking slow down the avenue
Through my old neighborhood
Don't know why I'm happy
I've got no reason to feel this good
Maybe it's because I'm all alone
And I've got no place to go
And everywhere I look I see
Another person I'll never know

I got a thing or two to say
Before I walk on by
I'm feeling good today
But if die a little farther along
I'm trusting everyone to carry on

What the last half seems to say is, “There's life after the flood." No matter what the world throws at you, no matter the hurt or confusion we currently feel, we heal, rebuild and move on. Browne's subsequent career has continued to reflect these themes but they've never been more beautifully articulated than Late For The Sky, a bonafide classic to be sure.

Track Listing

Side One:
1. Late for the Sky
2. Fountain of Sorrow
3. Farther On
4. The Late Show

Side Two:
1. The Road and the Sky
2. For a Dancer
3. Walking Slow
4. Before the Deluge

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