Jackson Browne: Downhill from Everywhere review – voice of the boomers faces his mortality
Still regarded as the most artful of 1970s west coast singer-songwriters, Browne frets about the environment and his use by date
Alexis PetridisThu 15 Jul 2021 12.00 BST
“I’m still looking for something,” sings Jackson Browne on the opening track of his first album in eight years. “I’m way out over my due date.” It sounds like a stark admission, as if he’s as surprised as anyone that he’s still recording at 72.
Browne’s reputation has helped keep him aloft. He was the most artful of the 1970s west coast songwriters, who didn’t just spill his guts in confessional style but chronicled the boomer generation’s uncertain and increasingly disillusioned path through a landscape in which hippy idealism had withered: “Caught between the longing for love and the struggle for legal tender,” as he put it on 1976’s The Pretender, a song that fairly accurately presaged the dawning of the yuppie era. When the yuppie era duly arrived, he didn’t necessarily grow with his audience – a significant portion of them deserted him, presumably turned off by his increasingly strident leftwing tone. By the mid-80s, there were substantially fewer takers for Browne’s angry and accusatory Lives in the Balance than for the less specific, well-things-have-certainly-changed wistfulness of his old pal Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast – though some of them returned when he dialled down the politics on 1993’s I’m Alive.
Nevertheless, decades later, there is a sense in which Browne still embodies the classic boomer singer-songwriter, at least insofar as he spends a lot of Downhill from Everywhere doing precisely the kinds of things that septuagenarian songwriters of a certain cast tend to do, including worrying about the environment, wondering aloud about the younger generation, dabbling in global music (there’s a Caribbean lilt to Love Is Love and a distinct Latin-American flavour to the rhythms of closer A Song for Barcelona) and writing love songs to a new partner who is evidently considerably younger than he is. “The years I’ve seen that fell between my date of birth and yours / fade beyond the altered shore of a river changing course,” he sings on Minutes to Downtown.
Browne is good at all this stuff. A May to December romance is a tricky topic to essay in song without sounding like, as Smash Hits would have put it in the 80s, Uncle Disgusting. (Let us pause and spend a moment of horrified silence recalling Chris de Burgh’s 1994 hit Blonde Hair, Blue Jeans as an example of the absolute worst that can happen.) But Minutes to Downtown pulls it off, perhaps because it focuses on Browne’s age (“close to the end”) rather than that of his partner. The whole thing is shot through with a sadness based in encroaching mortality.
The title track feels like a distant relation of 1974’s Before the Deluge, which also viewed nature as a terrifying, ultimately ungovernable force. And Browne has had plenty of practice at what used to be called “message songs” – including practice at getting them wrong. Perhaps haunted by the thought that not everyone who bought his 70s albums agreed with him about the Reagan era (“Among the human beings in their designer jeans, am I the only one who hears the screams?” he pondered on 1983’s Lawyers in Love) he developed a tendency to lyrically beat people over the head. The causes he supported were just, and you never doubted his sincerity, but you did occasionally wonder how much good lecturing people would do. That doesn’t happen here. Or at least not much: there’s a definite whiff of ham-fisted hectoring about Until Justice Is Real, but The Dreamers’ story of an illegal immigrant focusses on the small human details and is more moving and powerful for it. A Little Soon To Say is better yet, surveying Generation Z with a very realistic, genuinely touching cocktail of hope and parental concern that they might not be able to fix the mess they’ve inherited: “Beyond the sickness of our day and after what we’ve come to live with / I want to know if you’re OK.”
In the US, Browne is a longstanding part of the cultural landscape, the author of a string of platinum-selling albums, regularly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. In Britain, he remains more of a cult concern. He’s never had a Top 20 album here, his solitary hit single was a cover – a 1978 live version of the Zodiacs’ old doo-wop classic Stay – and his best-known songs are those sung by others: Take It Easy, the song he co-wrote with Glenn Frey for the Eagles and, at least since the release of The Royal Tenenbaums, Nico’s gorgeous, wintry version of These Days. Downhill from Everywhere isn’t the kind of album that is going to alter that imbalance. The music is slick and well-crafted – as you might expect, given the abundance of veteran LA sessioneers in the credits – rather than gasp-inducing. But then, at 72, Browne probably isn’t in the business of overturning expectations and fishing for new fans. You suspect that as long as his albums can justifying staying out over his due date, he’s happy. Downhill from Everywhere does.
Downhill from Everywhere is released 23 July.