Jackson Browne always wrote the best song lyrics. Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan write poetry, The Beatles wrote great pop songs, Adele Parks, Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift and Lana del Ray write about autobiographical teenage angst and Jackson Browne manages to find the optimal middle ground between all of these. Early albums are filled with songs about self identity. His wife’s suicide introduced a tragic element. His middle period included many songs railing against the state of the world. His last album, “Standing In The Breach“, released in 2014, involved looking back on his life with a humorous self detachment and his new album, “Downhill From Everywhere”, shows him contemplating his mortality at 72 years of age. In an interview with Jim Farber in The Guardian, he said “I’m old, you know. It’s one of the undeniable facts of this life that it doesn’t last forever. So, I think my questions now have more to do with, ‘what can be accomplished in the time I have left?’ And, ‘what are we here for in the first place?’”. Jim Farber reckons that, in this album, Jackson Browne “addresses desire in all its forms, whether that be for a romantic connection, a sense of purpose, a political goal or simply to experience something new.” Jackson Browne said “Desire is eternal, like hope. It’s just your capacity to act on it that changes.“
The opening track, “Still Looking For Something” is a classic Jackson Browne song. Musically, his sound hasn’t really changed over fifty years – beautifully arranged and perfectly played but the emotional punch comes from the lyrics rather than the playing of the best session musicians in L.A. Nevertheless, three of the subsequent tracks have a Texicana feel to them and a couple more are gentle acoustic songs. The Seventies AOR sound on this track (which I sometimes love and sometimes find a bit anodyne) is not on every song. The song’s theme is encapsulated in the title – he is looking for a better life and he is aware that dreams can be shattered or, as he puts it, “I knew since I was just little the sharp edges of the world will whittle your dreams down to shavings at your feet.” The theme of this song is not a million miles away from the wonderful title song from 1974’s “Late For The Sky“. “How long have I been sleeping? How long have I been drifting alone through the night? How long have I been running for that morning flight through the whispered promises and the changing light of the bed where we both lie, late for the sky?”
A similar theme emerges on “My Cleveland Heart” in which he finds himself “stranded on that endless straightaway between the truth and my wildest dreams.” He has a broken heart from a failed relationship and so he decides to travel to the best heart transplant clinic in the country, at Cleveland, to get a new heart. He told Jim Farber that the song is about “eliminating human frailty. Wouldn’t that be great? Automatic happiness.” I guess he’s being sarcastic. There is a ridiculous video in which Jackson Browne’s has a heart transplant carried out by a team of doctors who happen to be the musicians who play on the album including guitarist Val McCallum, the amazing and ubiquitous Greg Leisz, drummer Pete Thomas from The Attractions and bass player Bob Glaub (who has worked with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Leonard Cohen, John prine and, literally, hundreds others). At the end of the video, Phoebe Bridgers appears to triumphantly hold his old heart aloft. As I said, it’s ridiculous.
In “Minutes to Downtown”, Jackson Browne sings as an older man with a younger partner, regretting the passing of time and wondering what the future will bring. Musically, it’s great with an archetypal Jackson Browne instrumental coda.
“A Human Touch” begins with some beautiful vocals from Leslie Mendelson, a singer/songwriter whose career was meandering until Mark Howard (an engineer/producer who has worked with Bob Dylan (“Time Out Of Mind”), Neil Young (“le Noise”) and Lucinda Williams (“World Without Tears”)) offered to produce her next album. This drew her to the attention of Paul Haggis (a screenwriter (“Casino Royale”), director (“Crash”) and producer (“Walker, Texas Ranger”)). He was making a film called “5B” about the first AIDS ward in a US hospital (in San Francisco) and the discrimination borne of ignorance that patients and medical staff on the ward had to suffer. Paul Haggis wanted someone to duet with Jackson Browne on a song that was to be played over the closing credits. Leslie Mendelson had already written songs with Steve McEwan and they penned some of the opening lines for the song. “You call it a decision, I say it’s how we’re made. There’s no point in shouting from your island proclaiming only Jesus saves.” Jackson Browne wrote the phrase “I say how it’s made” and subsequently felt inspired by these lines to consider what it was that “saves” and, as a child of the Sixties, he decided that the answer was love. Love saves. And so say we all. It’s a beautiful song, the harmonies work wonderfully well and when Jackson Browne comes in to sing “Everybody wants a holiday, everybody wants to feel the sun, to get outside and run around and live like they’re forever young“, it seems that his personal search for validation and fulfilment, despite the passing of time, are feelings that can be understood by everyone. This is a real highlight of the album, for me.
“Love Is Love” is set on a island where everything is not the paradise it might seem. However, despite the poverty and slums, the people treat each other in a loving way that offers hope of a better future. Musically, there is a Caribbean feel to both the instrumentation and the harmony singing of Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart. The song was originally released in January 2020 on an album called “Let The Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1”, which is a collaborative project from songwriters Paul Beaubrun, Jackson Browne, Habib Koité, Jenny Lewis, Raúl Rodríguez, Jonathan Russell, and Jonathan Wilson, with members of the Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik.
Side Two starts with the title track, “Downhill From Everywhere“. Everything is going to hell in a handcart. It’s downhill all the way and if you’re not sure why, Jackson provides a list: it’s downhill from the prison, the mall, the factory farm, the border wall, the bar, the theme park, happy hour, Columbine amongst many others. In fact it’s downhill from all of humanity. And if you’re not sure, it’s also downhill from the N.R.A., the G.O.P. and the I.C.E. The phrase “downhill from everywhere” was made by an oceanographer called Charles Moore who discovered that he was sailing through a sea of plastic. The track is another of Jackson Browne’s environmental songs and he regards it as a “call to consciousness” of the damage that we do by dumping plastic in the oceans. It’s a bitter song set in a jaunty AOR rock setting.
“The Dreamer” was cowritten with Eugene Rodriguez and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos). The music is more Texicana than AOR and is about a Mexican immigrant facing deportation. Part of the song is sung in Spanish and includes vocals from Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills.
Color Of Change is an online racial justice organisation and its rallying cry is “Until Justice Is Real“, the eight track on the CD. This is a good song which has a Stones-like feel and some pretty unambiguous lyrics such as “What is democracy? What is the deal? What would it look like? How would it feel? Putting your shoulder to the wheel and staying with it until justice is real.” Jackson Browne is aware that some of his listeners find it uncomfortable to be preached at. He said “You try not to preach, but the problem is, if you’re too oblique, no one knows what the hell you’re talking about.” The song makes it clear that the time for action is now. but “Time is running out” can also refer to one of the main themes of this album – the feelings of a man in his seventies wondering how much time he has left.
“A Little Too Soon To Say” is more gentle and reflective and could be the signature track on the album. He reflects on the journey of his life and his constant search for happiness and salvation. He has made mistakes, he has searched everywhere but he has come to the conclusion that “All we’ve ever needed has been there all along inside of you and me.” He fears that it may be too late to assume that everything is going to be all right. It’s a little too soon to say.
The last song on the album is “A Song For Barcelona“, a city where Jackson Browne has spent much time. He holds a fantasy of living there and feels that the city’s vibrancy holds a hope of renewal and redemption. The song was written by six members of the band. Musically it is a mix of Tex Rex and Seventies L.A. and over eight minutes, it never fails to hold my interest.
I’ve been looking forward to this album for ages and, having played each song two or three times while writing this, I know I’m not going to be disappointed. It is lyrically thought provoking and musically varied. It’s easy to enjoy at a superficial level – just to have it on, without properly listening, it sounds great. However, as always, digging deep uncovers further riches. It’s the sound of a man in his seventies wondering about the injustices in the world, reflecting on his mistakes and hoping for a better future for humanity.