Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rank 'em: The Pretender, Jackson Browne

Yesterday we way back, 1969 in fact, to look at the classic Abbey Road. Today the mix yielded something just a few later but very different: Jackson Browne's fourth album, The Pretender, released in 1976.

By this time, Browne had developed a reputation as perhaps the best example of songwriting in the "California" style of the '70s that would be perfected by the Eagles (who he was close to and contributed a major part of the credit for their breakthrough hit, Take It Easy).

Browne wrote catchy-ass tunes, and backed by the studio musicians who would sometimes be most of a fringe group called The Section, he had a distinct sound. Most folks today might find it a little dated, but two things endure about Jackson Browne: 1, he wrote a TON of hits, and 2, women swooned over this guy. Some of us considered this inexplicable, kind of the way we evaluate John Mayer today.

One girl I was really interested in, Shirley, was a music major in college. She liked Jackson a lot more than she liked me. I bought her a JB songbook, which she liked. More than me. Another girl I liked, Lynn, was even more enamored with him. Later, when rumors came out that he had been physically abusive, I hoped it wasn't true, because I hate people who hurt women, but it took some of the sting out of constantly ranking behind this mopey long-haired German-born star.

Complicating matters was the fact that I really liked his music, though. His first scores, Doctor My Eyes and Rock Me On The Water, took him from acclaimed songwriter to big star. People who weren't around in the 70s don't realize how big he was. With The Pretender and then Running On Empty in 1977, Jackson Browne was about as big a star as their was in the rock world. The Eagles were bigger, as was Elton John, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who... but after that, he was way, way up there.

The first album of his I bought, and to this day my favorite of his, is The Pretender.

The album opens with The Fuse, a tone-setter for the dominant mood of the album's eight songs. Some lyricists just free associate and that's their "art." JB would go on in the 70s to be one of the leading voices of social activism for a number of issues, and he's pretty clear in The Fuse about what's on his mind and what he's going to be talking about for the time it takes to get through The Pretender:
Whatever it is you might think you have / You have nothing to lose / Through every dead and living thing / Time runs like a fuse / And the fuse is burning / And the earth is turning. 
The almost six-minute long song starts slow but winds up with a long instrumental workout as it builds toward the end. Very nice bit of music.

Browne's 30-year-old wife had committed suicide just a few months before the release of The Pretender. For a writer who focuses so much on lyrics, there's obvious pain and searching throughout the album. A generation of teenage listeners could easily find some common ground with the earnest questions JB seemed to find unanswered throughout The Pretender.

This is especially true on the second song (as well as the title cut). Your Bright Baby Blues tackles a lot of topics: Loss, longing, love, loneliness... even drugs and spirituality make guest appearances. It's a beautiful song (lyrics here). The girls probably wanted to wipe away JB's tears. The guys wanted to say "Umm, you can wipe away MY tears."

The next song, Linda Paloma, is kind of a head-scratcher. It's fun, but it's very... Mexican. I mean that positively. In the 70s there just was almost nothing like it, outside of regional acts like Freddy Fender or the Texas Tornados. The charm is that it introduced a new cultural experience to listeners who probably had never heard mariachi music before. It works, but it's certainly a stretch.

Here Comes Those Tears Again was perhaps his biggest hit from the album. It was given a co-writer credit to Nancy Farnsworth, the mother of his late wife. Obviously poignant, although the song deals with a relationship gone wrong and not overtly about the tragic suicide of his wife. Still, anyone who's had to deal with relationship shit can relate.

The second side of the album (I'm going to keep using this info when albums where the "thing") began with my favorite song on the disc, The Only Child. There's so much wisdom in this song... it reaches into your heart and holds you close. The album's cover art had JB walking across a crowded LA street; the flip side had a small child running through the surf on a beach. I wondered if that was JB's young son, then not yet three. JB was a single dad now. The song begins with the lyric "Boy of mine..."

I tried to find the perfect excerpts from this song, but couldn't... because it's front-to-back meaningful. So read them all.

JB fans won't need to click that link, because they probably already know them all. They're just looking for another lonely child.

Daddy's Tune starts kind of sad, about the age-old story of generational/parental conflict. The lyrics tell of JB lamenting a rift with his father, or a father... how hard it was to communicate. But the song kind of pivots to a romp, and the lyrics turn to an acceptance of the wisdom gained only through time.

The upbeat end is welcome, because it won't be found on the next song, Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate, which would make Morrissey suicidal. The final verse offers no real respite:
Sometimes I lie awake and wonder / Where the years have gone / They have all passed under / Sleep's dark and silent gate
There is a tiniest bit of good news: The song's only 2:37 long. A good song, but not a happy one.

The Pretender closes the album, and it's classic JB. The big difference is that in almost all the songs on the album, JB talks about personal traumas and concerns. Even though the title track is spoken in first-person, it seems to be more about everyman than just the singer. The song talks about the emptiness of consumerism and capitalism... living to work, instead of working to live. A guy named Bruce Springsteen on the other coast was tapping into this hopelessness at about the same time.

The final lines describe the acceptance, the assimilation, that so many Americans just give in to. Still relevant almost 40 years later:
I'm gonna be a happy idiot / And struggle for the legal tender / Where the ads take aim and lay their claim / To the heart and the soul of the spender / And believe in whatever my lie / In those things that money can buy  / Thought true love could have been a contender / Are you there? Say a prayer / For the pretender / Who started out so young and strong / Only to surrender.

Jackson peaked with this album, for me at least, although he'd have a great followup that probably sold more, and a few more hits. But this album scores and soars across the board.

This one's tough to score. I had it pegged below 4-6 originally, but am instead going to move it to No. 4 because of its thoughtful messaging and the fact that Nilsson and Tom Tom Club are kind of lightweight. Let's update the rankings:

1. Abbey Road, The Beatles
2. Sandinista, The Clash
4. The Pretender, Jackson Browne
5. Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
6. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club
7. Son of Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
8. 311, 311

Sorry, 311.

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