Downhill from Everywhere
Jul 23, 2021 WEB EXCLUSIVEBy Austin Saalman
Veteran Laurel Canyon troubadour and activist Jackson Browne has re-emerged with his first album in nearly seven years. On Downhill from Everywhere, Browne offers yet another blend of his signature heartache and sociopolitical commentary, not unlike that of 2014’s well-received Standing in the Breach.
Browne’s legacy ensures him his own exhibit in the museum of American music for his role in the development and popularization of the Laurel Canyon sound. At heart, however, he is more of a wanderer than an icon, his adventures having carried him from coast to coast, placing him alongside a number of significant figures of the time. He shared a fleeting love affair with Nico in New York and served a brief stint in Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in California. He roomed in the basement below Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther’s shared apartment, both young unknowns at the time. He collaborated with Frey on “Take It Easy,” which became a hit for Frey’s group Eagles. He nurtured the career of Warren Zevon, producing his phenomenal early albums, helping to gain the struggling songwriter a bit of mainstream attention. As for himself, aside from releasing a number of popular hits, such as “Doctor, My Eyes” and “Somebody’s Baby,” Browne also recorded one of the finest albums of all time—1974’s somber Late for the Sky.
This in mind, Downhill from Everywhere continues the saga of Browne’s evolution from that young, sentimental singer/songwriter to a grizzled End Times prophet, his once smooth voice since given to the grizzled rasp of a man who has seen more than he’d have liked to. The foreboding specter of a nation aflame haunts even the more upbeat tracks with the same sense of urgent desperation present on Standing in the Breach.
Opening track “Still Looking for Something” is a welcome return to form for Browne, whose output has been hit and miss since the release of 1996’s Looking East. The track, Browne’s haggard promise of perseverance and possibility, rings familiar somehow—a welcome throwback to his glory years. When he sings, “I’m still looking for something/I’m out here under the streetlight baby, I’m/Still looking for something in the night,” one immediately recalls the prematurely world-weary 20-something of 1972’s Jackson Browne and 1973’s For Everyman. Here he is, at 72, still chasing the same prospect which has preoccupied much of his output for nearly five decades—that of freedom. Except, Browne seems somehow content this time around, shedding the anxious anguish of his former self to boldly resolve, “If I don’t find it this time/It’s alright.”
The subsequent “My Cleveland Heart” also recalls Browne’s previous sound, perhaps more at home on 1980’s Hold Out or 1983’s Lawyers In Love. Upbeat and danceable, the chorus reminds the listener that Browne’s remarkable pop expertise remains alive and at the forefront of his creative process.
The dusky “Minutes to Downtown” conjures subtle shades of 1986’s “In the Shape of a Heart.” Rife with devastation and containing some of the finest poetry of Browne’s recent career, “Minutes to Downtown” is an atmospheric achievement, yet another artistic accomplishment for a voice at its most powerful when addressing themes of disillusion, restlessness, and loss.
The issue with the remaining six tracks, excluding penultimate ballad “A Little Soon to Say,” is that they each seem to resemble the least desirable aspects of 1986’s Lives in the Balance and 1989’s World in Motion, in that the heavy lyrical messages tend to outweigh the music.
The issues addressed on Downhill from Everywhere—immigration, pollution, inequality, democracy under fire—are not new concerns for Browne, whose political output increased greatly in the ’80s. At times, said approach has worked well for him, as exemplified on 1986’s “For America” and 2014’s “The Long Way Around.” Downhill from Everywhere, on the other hand, fumbles much of its noble efforts.
The album’s title track, for example, sounds less like a bold “put up your dukes” challenge to the establishment than it does a so-so rock number with lyrics such as, “Do you think of the ocean as yours?/Because you need the ocean to breathe.” The same can be spoken of the underwhelming “The Dreamer” and “Until Justice is Real,” which could easily have been an outtake from the Lives in the Balance sessions. The lyrics are blunt and far from controversial, reminding one more of a PSA announcement or generic campaign literature. In the same respect, the closing “A Song for Barcelona” falls short, somewhat resembling the text of a postcard or resort advertisement, although the intentions behind it may have been honest.
Jackson Browne is one of the boldest talents in American music, his first four albums standing as understated classics. Downhill from Everywhere, however, fails to recreate that magic, although the first three tracks come close. Browne is an intelligent artist with valid thoughts and concerns to address, but Downhill from Everywhere does not serve as a strong vehicle for such statements. (www.jacksonbrowne.com)
Author rating: 6/10