Jackson Browne is the thinking man’s Eagles. Or perhaps he’s merely the pretentious man’s Eagles. Because while the Eagles were singing about the Hotel California, Browne was playing existential philosopher, and questioning whether we’re not all pretenders playing roles, and thereby slowly laying waste to our souls. But Browne is less the philosopher than he thinks he is, and is deep solely by LA standards, which is to say he’s rock’s equivalent of the Los Angeles River, and has spent his career as a singer-songwriter plumbing life’s epistemological shallows.
Browne’s fate will always be intertwined with that of the Eagles; he wrote one song and co-wrote another (“Take It Easy”) on the Eagles debut, and they were all urban cowboys in denim at a time when LA was basically a dude ranch for cocaine-fueled country-rockers, most of whom spent inordinate amounts of time sipping tequila sunrises in David Geffen’s hot tub. But Browne never wrote a song as good as the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane,” probably because debauchery was never his area of expertise. His muse was Henry David Thoreau, whose line about most men leading lives of quiet desperation became Browne’s abiding theme. Browne was intrigued by the quotidian banal and the spirit-squandering fate of the Everyman, and nowhere did he explore these themes as extensively as he did on 1976’s The Pretender.
Browne began his music career as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and then went on to write songs for everyone from Nico—with whom he was romantically linked—to Gregg Allman, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, and The Byrds before finally striking out on his own with his 1972 debut, Jackson Browne. The Pretender was Browne’s fourth LP and was released after Browne’s first wife committed suicide, which no doubt helps account for the album’s somber tone. And it featured the contributions of dozens of musicians, some of them horrible people (David Crosby, Don Henley, Graham Nash) and many of them studio pros. His regular band (David Lindley, etc.) was also on hand, as were the likes of Lowell George, Bonnie Raitt, and Roy Bittan.