Graded on a Curve: Jackson Browne,
The Pretender

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.

The Pretender opens with “The Fuse,” with the fuse in question being time, which is always burning, and—I can’t do it. I can’t review this LP. I’ve been listening to it for days now and those days have been painful ones. Listening to The Pretender is like staring into a giant navel wherein sits Browne with his acoustic guitar, sunk deep in introspection and expressing deep thoughts in a largely soporific manner that makes you want to grab him by the balls and shout, “Pick up the tempo, Emily Dickinson!” It’s not like he’s incapable of kicking up some dust; he’s written songs you could actually jump around to, such as “Doctor My Eyes” (best song about optometry ever written), “My Redneck Friend,” “Running on Empty” (I’ve always been lukewarm about the tune but can understand why somebody else might like it), and “Take It Easy,” in which he brags about having four women who want to stone him, when in fact that’s nothing—I’ve got at least eight.

But as I said previously The Pretender is a somber affair and about as exciting as a neti pot, and when he sings in “The Road and the Sky” off 1974’s Late for the Sky about hotwiring reality it makes you wonder why he couldn’t have done the same for the musing snoozers on this oh-so-portentous LP. It’s Browne and his ilk who made punk inevitable, as Lester Bangs noted in his immortal essay “James Taylor Marked for Death,” by forgetting that rock is not an adult pursuit and by neglecting to add not only the sex and drugs, but also the rock’n’roll. The Pretender is an LP for the middle-aged, what with its somnolent tempos and philosophical musings about life’s betrayal and the inexorable ravages of time. Which he explores on the dull-beyond-words opener “The Fuse.” While its melody is catchy compared to most of the other songs on The Pretender that’s not saying much, and as for its lyrics they’re largely incoherent, as he shifts from his usual self-absorption to an out-of-the-blue protest against world starvation. At least follow-up “Your Bright Baby Blues” includes a semi-interesting organ riff and a cool solo by George, as well as some nice lines (“No matter how fast I run/I can never seem to get away from me,” and “I thought I was flying like a bird/So far above my sorrow/But when I looked down/I was standing on my knees”) that this young-at-heart old man can relate to.

But those brief moments of grace are undone—as is virtually the entire LP, in my opinion—by the too delicate by miles mock mariachi of “Linda Paloma.” It features scads of south-of-the-border guitars and a melody so annoying I’d strangle it if I could, and all of that is nothing compared to the siesta-ending horns and male choir that follow. This one is too precious (and bordering on insult by stereotype) for words, and after it the slightly maudlin but radio-friendly “Here Come Those Tears Again” actually comes as something of a relief. That I think it’s the album’s second best tune is more damning than complimentary, because it’s a standard issue slice of MOR AOR designed, like a good Eagles song, to appeal to as many saps as possible, and proof positive that if you set your sights low enough, you’re sure to have a hit on your hands. And if it weren’t for the cool female backing vocalists, it wouldn’t even be that. That it reached #23 on the Billboard charts speaks volumes about the musical abyss that was 1976; people were desperate, desperate enough to look to Browne for the meaning of Life and depth of meaning, when in fact “Here Come Those Tears Again” demonstrates that Browne was at his best when working in the shallows. His best songs (“Take It Easy,” “My Redneck Friend,” etc. were anything but deep, and the real tragedy of Jackson Browne is that he squandered his gift for writing catchy tunes in order to write “deep” songs that were drab, boring, and not half as wise or poetic as those, say, by pal Warren Zevon, who imparted more philosophy in an average couplet than Browne does on entire albums.

“The Only Child” is Browne at his most stupendously dull. Its “message” is banal, the backing vocals are irksome, and the chorus makes me want to defenestrate myself, even though I’m not sure that’s possible. Navel Gazer Express “Daddy’s Tune” is similarly awful, a slow grind of a whine about bad parenting that is not at all redeemed by its perky, horn-infested midsection. Nor does the long instrumental impress, as it’s dominated by David Lindley, whom I’ve always regarded as the worst guitarist of rock’s modern era. His instrument doesn’t sing, it whines. And whines and whines. As for “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” its chief virtue is its brevity. It features a dirge-like melody, some really lugubrious strings, and has Browne lying in bed and musing. Which isn’t good. Jackson Browne shouldn’t be allowed to muse. Especially in the dead of night. Did no one tell him about Quaaludes? It would have saved us all some misery.

In the end, the LP stands on its excellent closing track, “The Pretender,” a song that may not be as deep as Browne thinks it is, but is deep enough to actually communicate the banal fate of the human tribe. It’s a mid-tempo tune dominated by a piano, and features a great chorus, and is almost kinda moving in its treatment of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Man, who lives but doesn’t know why and goes about his daily struggle without questioning either its meaning or his own. And really what I like about it most is the compassion Browne expresses towards the end, when he sings, “Are you there?/Say a prayer for the pretender/Who started out so young and strong/Only to surrender.” And then goes only to repeat those lines about saying a prayer for the pretender, who is almost all of us, as we surrender our dreams without so much as a struggle and fall into the ranks of the quietly desperate, waking up in the morning and falling asleep at night to the far-off sound of a church bell tolling the waste of our precious hours on this fucked-up planet.

It’s too bad for Browne that The Pretender is so dull it constitutes a waste of the precious time mentioned above, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say is stands as the least compelling album I’ve ever reviewed. Browne’s not a middle of the road artist, he’s the middle of the road itself, and his much-vaunted deep thoughts don’t save him, but damn him. Nobody should have put so much thought into writing so-so lyrics for this snooze of the singer-songwriter blues, and if in the end Jackson Browne is indeed the thinking man’s Eagles, I hereby resolve to stop thinking. It hurts too much, and isn’t worth the effort, and at least the Eagles, horror that they were, saw fit to throw their share of plastic rockers our way. All Browne does is think in sound, and the only lyric of his that I’m sure to remember is “You could be laughing at me/You’ve got the right.” I may indeed have the right but I’ll pass, because Browne is too staid and serious an artiste to even laugh at. Forget saying a prayer for the Pretender and say a prayer for this album. It needs all the divine assistance it can get.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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  • Matthew Williams

    What a moronic review of a great album. You are just the type that needs to be hit over the head to enjoy something. Subtlety is lost on you.

  • DavidmartinezUSA

    Never heard of this ‘writer’ (and I am using the word very loosely) and I don’t suspect I ever will again; thank God. But it always seems to be that those that lack talent are the first to display their ignorance in their inability to detect talent.

    • Wish bone

      This “writer” is truly dumb. That’s all there is to it really.

      I mean he flat out says “as he shifts from his usual self-absorption to an out-of-the-blue protest against world starvation”… there was never a protest against world starvation in the song ya dumbass “writer”.

      I give this review a D-. Though he’ll probably come up and tell me that grade doesn’t exist.

  • Scott Kelly

    “Nor does the long instrumental impress, as it’s dominated by David Lindley, whom I’ve always regarded as the worst guitarist of rock’s modern era. His instrument doesn’t sing, it whines. And whines and whines.”

    From the reviewers Facebook page

    Michael H. Little
    December 15 at 10:22am ·
    Dear Reader: I’m not particularly knowledgeable about music. But I do my honest best to entertain. Long Live Grand Funk Railroad!.

    So, Mark Farner is a better guitarist than David Lindley?

    Yeah, “KEEP IT REAL”, man.

  • Dshakes

    Wow, this guy is truly clueless.

  • Jim Bartkowiak

    Wow! I’ve enjoyed this album many times, since it came out. I didn’t know I was listening to such trash. I’ll be sure to tell Jackson when I see him in June, for the umpteenth time. It’s a good thing the writer didn’t go into oncology. His outlook would just send people home to die. I wonder what he listens to, in his spare time. Fraggle Rock?

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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