by Mike Davies 21 July, 2021

Jackson Browne – Downhill From Everywhere

Inside Recordings – 23 July 2021

His first new material in six years, Downhill From Everywhere, finds Jackson Browne on vintage form, marrying hummable melodies to both perceptive social commentary lyrics and love songs, addressing doubt and dignity, the need for justice, connection and tolerance in turbulent times. His lyrics are informed by a sense of encroaching mortality, that of the world as much as his own (“I’m way out over my due date baby”), with, as he sings on Until Justice Is Real, “Time like a fuse burning shorter every day”.

Downhill From Everywhere was recorded with an accomplished core band that includes Greg Leisz and Val McCallum on guitars, bassist Bob Glaub, drummer Mauricio Lewak and Jeff Young on keys. It opens with Still Looking For Something, a melodically laid back rolling rhythm number. Musically, it harks to those early albums with their West Coast vibe as he sings about always hoping for a better future (“I knew since I was just little/The sharp edges of the world will whittle/Your dreams down to shavings at your feet/Gonna do my best not to settle/I know it’s gonna test my mettle/To keep my options open- even so I’m hoping”).

With the drums taking the pace up, co-penned with McCallum, My Cleveland Heart (a reference to the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic) is a playful number with a serious undercurrent about how life would be if we were fitted with unbreakable, artificial hearts (“They’re made to take a bashin’/And never lose their passion …Don’t make mistakes/And they don’t know defeat”).

Russ Kunkel taking over the drum seat and Young on Hammond, the first of the lengthier tracks arrives with the chugging beat, Minutes To Downtown,  an upbeat and autobiographical number about it never being too late to find love  (“I didn’t think that I would ever feel this way again/No, not with a story this long and this close to the end”), in this case with someone younger (“The years I’ve seen that fell between my date of birth and yours/Fade before the altered shore of a river changing course”). However, the song could equally be about leaving his longtime love, LA, for new pastures.

With yet another drum seat swap to bring in Jay Bellarose with Leisz on the pedal and lap steel and Patrick Warren on keyboards, up next, co-written with Steve McEwan and Leslie Mendelson, the latter duetting with Browne is, to my mind, the album’s greatest track, A Human Touch, a quietly beautiful song about finding connection regardless your sexual orientation (“You can call it a decision/I say it’s how we’re made… There will always be pain/But because of it there will always be love”), a song I’d rank up there with Before The Deluge and The Pretender.

Love Is Love hits the mid-way mark with a Caribbean lilt, as a song that reminds us that everyone has their troubles, even in those places that we fantasise as some island paradise  (“here, on the broken city streets of the island/People work and live and love and struggle every day”) but, Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart on backing vocals, there is still hope (“Rick rides a motorbike through the worst slums of the city/The father and the doctor to the poorest of the poor/Raising up the future from the rubble of the past/Here they say –  L’espua fe viv – Hope makes life”).

Edging six minutes, the title track, written with Leisz and Young,  is a Browne riff-driven rocker that’s essentially a list number about everything going to shit that speaks of polluting the oceans and takes a swipe at the NRA, the GOP and the ICE.

Another standout comes with the lilting Texicana sway of The Dreamer, a bi-lingual collaboration with Eugene Rodriguez which, based on a young woman they both know,  is about a Mexican immigrant facing deportation, with Browne calling on those who see only enemies and walls to realise that is these that  “Keep us prisoners of our fear”.

Browne has long been an activist and, with its tribal thump rhythm and Waddy Wachtel’s electric guitar,  Until Justice Is Real takes its title from the rallying cry of the activist group Color of Change who aim “to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America”. As to the Stonesy-sounding Start Me Up guitar licks, he pointedly declares, “You want the truth you got to find it on your own/It may not be that easy to see/The truth is going to cost you in the land of the free/It’s a good question to be asking yourself/What is the good life, what is wealth?/What is the future I’m trying to see?/What does that future need from me?

It closes with the two longest cuts, first the scuffed drums and understated resonator guitar of A Little Soon To Say, a song that conjures humanity looking for something they can’t quite place, not realising “all we’ve ever needed/Has been there all along inside of you and me” as, mingling hope and doubt, he sings “I want to see you holding out your light/I want to see you light the way/Beyond the sirens and the broken night/Beyond the sickness of our day/And after all we’ve come to live with/I want to know if you’re ok/ I’ve got to think it’s going to be alright/It’s just a little soon to say”.

It ends with the eight-minute plus A Song For Barcelona, another bi-lingual number written by the entire core band, a tango rhythm,  handclaps and foot stamping  love song to the Spanish city that “that gave me back my fire – and restored my appetite”  with a lyric that echoes the sentiment of Before The Deluge as he sings of a gathering of souls united by a common vision:

They come from Ireland, they come from Africa    

They come from the US, they come from Canada               

They come from Norway, they come from China                   

They come from Uruguay, and from Bulgaria                 

They come for pleasure      

They come for freedom      

For the chance encounter 

Or the revelation                  

They come for business              

Or for adventure                    

And fall in love with the information

About the world, and about each other

They dream, and when they wake up

They’re not in Spain anymore

Browne has described the song as him envisioning a life beyond music (“my escape from rock n roll”), as just another face in the crowd, suggesting perhaps this may be a swansong? Whether that proves to be the case or not, Downhill From Everywhere is a glorious high.

Downhill From Everywhere is out on 23 July.