"Late For The Sky" / "For A Dancer"

>> Wednesday, June 02, 2010

I hate to say it, but I don't know if any performer in the history of pop music with Jackson Browne's talent jumped the shark as quickly as he did. About half of his fourth album, The Pretender, is kind of crap and after that really good cuts were few and far between--and that was 1976, when I was four years old.

But Browne's first three albums....

Jackson Browne (a.k.a. Saturate Before Using), For Everyman and Late For The Sky, released one-a-year between 1972 and 1974, are as solid a trilogy of albums as any singer/songwriter has ever released.

The problem, I think, is that Browne wanted to grow and expand his horizons, and you hate to say that, too--normally expanding your horizons as an artist is a great thing, and artists who don't grow, who stagnate, don't have enduring artistic legacies and really don't even have enduring commercial careers as often as you might expect. But the problem with Browne is he did one sort of thing really, really well: write somber, spare songs about loss.

Browne's first three albums are fairly intimate affairs for all the session musicians listed in their credits; they sound like somebody playing in a bar with a small band, singing songs about dead friends, ex-girlfriends, lost innocence. But when Browne went into the studio to record The Pretender, he hooked up with Bruce Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, and it sounds like they went for that bigass '70s Boss sound--that's probably why he brought Landau in at all. It's a sound that worked for The Boss because he's Bruce-Fucking-Springsteen, a guy whose gifts as a songwriter frequently eclipse the fact he's not only an outstanding musician but one of the most gifted bandleaders since the rock'n'roll era began (seriously--watch the behind-the-scenes clips included with the American Land edition of We Shall Overcome, in which Springsteen herds cats in almost-half-a-dozen different rooms, horns over here, strings over there, and makes it look like the easiest thing in the world). Browne, unfortunately, just sounds a little drowned when the band comes in.

Which is a damn shame. "The Pretender," for instance, is actually a pretty good song under all the mash. And after that album he just never got his mojo back, if you ask me.

I was musing on this the other evening when The Loft was playing a recent live recording of Browne and longtime collaborator David Lindley (a phenomenal and oft-overlooked guitarist) performing "Late For The Sky," one of those utterly amazing, utterly heartbreaking songs Browne used to be able to write so regularly. Here they are performing it in 2006:

And, as sort of a bonus I stumbled over while pulling "Late For The Sky", here's Browne and Lindley live again, performing another track from Late For The Sky--only thirty years younger, in a 1976 appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. "For A Dancer":


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