Far too numerous are the artistic champions who get asked by all of society to continuously pull swords from enchanted stones, only to be found too human for the permanence and intensity of the job. Precious rare are the lightning-struck icons who are up to the task of living up to our unconditional love with all its talons and mistaken pathologies. On his 15th studio album, entitled Downhill From Everywhere, Jackson Browne proves once again that he is not just up to clearing the hero hurdle but still beyond the ninth wave when it comes to writing medieval fables with modern reckonings.
Having studied his career over the course of nearly six decades, no one fair-minded could ever accuse Jackson Browne of having the kind of open-hearted sincerity that is, “Riding a capricious horse,” as the ever-capricious (and too-oft-quoted-by-moi!) Lytton Strachey would say. Strachey also said that, “Image must lay flowers at the feet of text” – in which case Jackson Browne ought well to be a human Tor of flowers long before now as he made his name as much on his actual words as he ever did the song-frames he artfully placed them into.
In any objective measure of Browne’s considerable social and musical impact, it is crucial to bear in mind that the folkie scene of the late 1960’s was a virtuous circle you had to brave your way into. Never forget that brill “upstarts” like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell would already be in that stringed poet’s pool ahead of you, pens bared and plectrums glowing in the dark. However, there was also a genuine collegiality in the foundational folk forest, and because of the proprietary heat-sealing technique he can languidly lay across the everyman experience, Browne was never treated like a novitiate even when he was brand-new. His way of conjuring the hippie perspective on Piers Plowman, and doing it all in a color wheel of sparrow browns, must have left any potential detractors positively vert with envy.
There was and remains an undeniable steganography in Browne’s every spoken syllable, and he is disarmingly good at showing the quotidian things in life to be revelatory. Having served as a staff writer for Elektra Records’ publishing company, Nina Music, before he was legal to vote, his immediate acceptance into the folkie fold could also have stemmed from the simple fact that he is a metallurgist of a melody-maker. All of his songs have optical properties reflecting his own persona as both a man and an artist who lives at the galloping juncture where David becomes Goliath. There is also the fact that Browne himself exudes enough meanness-necrotizing decency to charm you into knots even if your empathic tendencies are analogous to that of an industrial grain elevator.
Clyde Jackson Browne was but a breath past his sixteenth birthday when he emerged on that massive, almost Cenozoic overhang that would become his impelling career. He was among the first that David Geffen ever signed to the concealed engine that became Asylum Records. Hypodermic shots of harmonized integrity like “Doctor My Eyes” and “Rock Me On The Water” established early that Browne was not one to pantomime or play piquet with the lived stories of the characters in his songs. Gregg Allman, Joan Baez, Linda Rondstadt, and The Byrds have all employed rogue drams of his self-scanning, race-for-the-prize writing in moments when their own lacked the neon embrace needed for a real hit.
Jackson Browne was also an early-but-brief member of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, had backed up Tim Buckley in Greenwich quite early, famously co-wrote “Take It Easy” for The Eagles, and both wrote for and dated the enigmatic Nico, high courtesan of capers in the theatre of cool back then (and always). His salient and unforgettable “Song For Adam” is a situationist suicide shanty written about the self-inflicted death of his close friend Adam Saylor, and harbors incisive lyrics textured enough to have been painted by hand with whole valleys of acrylics.
1977’s Running On Empty broke previously untouched ground in recording methods by featuring tracks that had been captured live in all the places that touring musicians actually spend their days: backstage at venues, inside hotel rooms, on moving tour buses, and on stage. Ironically, as it was working on a theme of how unglamorous the rock-n-roll life can be a large portion of the time, the album made Browne into a card-carrying colossus. Its biggest tunes, “Running On Empty” and “The Load-Out/Stay,” are songs about the beaten madness of real rock stars, yes, but they are also spiritual touchstones from tobacco country that can relate just as easily to the trying toils of any Dust Bowl farmer.
This is arguably Browne’s greatest gift among a pantheon of triangulated gifts as a songwriter: with all the taken-for-granted orderliness of loblolly pines, he can speak of life’s golden scrapple and shivery pleasures as easily to a corporate A&R man as to an agronomist – and without ever altering a syllable of verse. His is the lingua franca of leaden skies – and we all know those care nothing for tax brackets.
With Downhill From Everywhere, Jackson Browne brings a full ten-song ode to the ocean, undulating in the kind of greens that go silver, like blown leaves’ underbellies in the dreamy, audible, high-tree-top breezes of newborn summer. It’s an ecologically conscious record that will make you mindful of so much more than what we routinely and thoughtlessly do to our life-giving seas.
Leading track “Still Looking For Something” is a classic searcher’s ballad and shows that whatever Browne is still looking for, it certainly isn’t the assassin’s mojo of his writerly youth. Lyrics like “You don’t get something for nothing, baby/Nothing you can hold up to the light/If all I find is freedom, it’s alright” show that he is still the syncretic war correspondent within himself, yet the interview produced from whatever transcripts he’s reading in his deepest soul still always relate as much or more to everybody else. Starting this record off with a song for the eternal seeker seems to hold a mordant message unto itself.
That said, the second track is where all the cool kids will be hanging out, as evidenced in no small way by the presence of a cameo in the song’s video by none other than the solid state laser that is Phoebe Bridgers. My Cleveland Heart in video form is a brilliant exposition and comedic extension on the idea of the operating “theater,” with Browne’s heart transplant surgery overseen by overzealous singing surgeons and somewhat bloodthirsty audience members. Like everything Browne composes, it’s Vesuvian but all under the skin.
A giant mechanical heart that looks like a human-inflected car motor is flashed about like a prize, turned to advantage in Vanna White-style, by a neurotic-looking nurse who wears an expression that could easily have appeared in Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” video with no aid from LSD or face-warping makeup to make it appropriately scary. A lap steel-playing scalpel-smith hands Browne’s non-functioning original heart to Nurse Bridgers (well played, Mr. Browne!) who promptly appears to take an unapologetic and feral bite of the extricated biological beatbox (even better played, Miss Bridgers!). Everyone knows human hearts are measured explosives and adversaries that obey no masters. However, not since Cat Power has the wish for a metal heart been so voice-painted with such regard for figure and ground.
“Minutes to Downtown” turns on ideas of unexpected love and the distances, both real and imagined, between people, their belief in their own potential, promised possibilities, and even, ultimately, death and oblivion. When Browne sings “Now, there may be nothing left for us but what pleasure can teach,” it is abundantly clear that he is not denigrating all the things one can iron out of the evening with a good red and even a middling partner.
“A Human Touch,” featuring Leslie Mendelson, was first written for the documentary film entitled 5B, about the nurses and doctors that gave those preliminary sufferers of AIDS the kind of dignified hope that should be the birthright of any human being. There are no guises anywhere in this song’s purpose, only treatises on the absolute necessity of brotherly love.
This thread carries through to “Love is Love,” which is an extremely understated island of a song – like a lapping baby wave – a sandy strum about universal acceptance. Title track “Downhill From Everywhere” highlights the pressing self-sabotage of our making the world’s oceans the official receptacle of all human failure and waste. Browne is in his finest activist form here as he skillfully sidesteps the wooden delivery and social swashbuckling that can make moderate people turn away from these kinds of dire issues in everyday discourse. The song points out, in simple language and chords, that turning a blind eye to marine rescue is the Gawain-like Christmas Game of all time, and that, incontrovertibly, the heads that will end up separated from bodies will be those of everyone’s children and grandchildren.
“Until Justice Is Real” is another cognizance chorale, and it’s a belter. Highlighting the iniquities of the American jurisprudence system (or inherent lack thereof), Browne questions illusion and democracy while underscoring their synonymic fault lines. Most everyone in America should tattoo, “Ain’t on your TV, ain’t on your phone / You want the truth you gotta find it on your own / It may not be that easy to see / The truth’s gonna cost you in the Land of the Free,” right across their foreheads at present, for reference and safekeeping.
The cover for Downhill From Everywhere is drawn from photographer Ed Burtynsky’s “Shipbreaking” series – so, even the artwork is aligned with the record’s moral undertaking. It hearkens back to the Magritte-inspired cover that graced 1974’s Late For The Sky, which also happened to earn Browne his first Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.
Though Jackson Browne is well known for only ever asking the probing questions, he concurrently displays an endless and unshakable belief in the overarching sunny disposition of the universe. Within the boar-filled backwoods that calls itself the modern music industry, where all the piggies wear trilbies and tight t-shirts instead of tailored suits now, Browne is still giving insincerity the public hanging it deserves.
In his saboteur’s chapelry, shorthanded answers and sonic birthday kisses do not stand in for the tidal bore of instinct, unsoiled by the wilds of empire. The social media shitehawks will, of course, be going grey with the effort of all of their neatly recited nonsense surrounding the “relevance” of so-called “boomers.” Yet Browne’s latest record subtly and quietly reminds that many things which are new since he was a younger genius – like ticky-tacky hot takes, for instance – are likewise vastly unimproved.
For all his estimable stature in the worlds of both music and activism, Jackson Browne still exudes the bearing of a dormant volcano, but paradoxically does it with a risible rictus, always. He’s still one of the venerated lyrical lions, all endorphins and empathy in knockaround shoes, but is ever diagnosing the social effluvium of the affluent and the downtrodden with immaculate symmetry. From the magisterial to the mignon, nothing seems to escape his canny eye.
songs are diagrammatic illustrations of the hugeness of ordinary lives that
anyone from anywhere can relate to, but they are simultaneously saturated with
a form of untilled Americana seen in almost no one else, even his lofty early
acoustic scene loft mates. Browne was writing distinctly American poetry that
demonstrated proof of a soul hounded by pirates when he was too young to fight
for or legally drink in the country for which he was exhibiting such
divination. A bulldozer with a root rake never dug deeper into anything than
Jackson Browne does to our slumberous comedown nature as First World human
beings. Downhill From Everywhere carves a path through the corners
of our polemical lives and the internal galaxies of every sort of heart – even,
and perhaps especially, those clanging types from Cleveland.