Graded on a Curve:
Jackson Browne,
For Everyman

I’ve come up with a great contest idea. If you win second place Jackson Browne plays an intimate show in your living room. If you win first place Jackson Browne doesn’t play an intimate concert in your living room. Just kidding. Jackson Browne has never been my sensitive El Lay singer-songwriter of choice, but then again I can’t be said to have a sensitive El Lay singer-songwriter of choice. All I know for sure is he beats hell out of Andrew Gold.

That said, let me start all over again with two quick observations on Browne’s 1973 sophomore album, For Everyman. One: You would think a legendary singer-songwriter of Jackson’s fastidious ilk would have put more time into writing compelling songs. Two: The songs that are compelling are the ones he seems to have spent the least time writing. Does it make sense that we should applaud such a deep soul as Browne for what appear to be his toss-offs?

Why not? The serious Jackson Browne has problems. For starters, he’s not a very good poet, at least on For Everyman. It’s impossible to know what the hell he’s trying to say when he says things like, “Hanging at my door/Many shiny surfaces/clinging in the breeze” (from “Colors of the Sun”) or “I Thought I was a child/Until you turned and smiled” (from “I Thought I Was a Child”). Browne has a gift for the portentous that borders on the pretentious, but too many of his songs hinge upon lyrical vagaries that drift away like smoke when you try to parse their meanings.

More problematic by far is the fact that too many of the songs on For Everyman appear to have failed out of charm school. It’s hard to imagine a song more colorless than “Colors of the Sun”; the melody plods along like a workhorse, the lyrics are so much mush signifying not so much. And “Sing My Songs for Me” ain’t much better. Browne has a template for dirges like this one, and on For Everyman he repeats the formula too often. “The Times You’ve Come” has a more delicate feel but the result is the same; I don’t know what you call what Jackson does but I call it droning. The slow tempos drag you into a pit of ennui that only a quick listen to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” will alleviate.

“I Thought I Was a Child” picks up a bit in middle and is nearly saved thereby, but the lyrics (as I noted before) are bad college poetry workshop stuff of the sort that even Bernie Taupin would turn his nose up at. And the big ending ruins the song for me anyway. I can’t put my finger on what saves “These Days”; it drags just like so many of the other songs on the LP, and Lord knows its melody isn’t worth writing home about. Perhaps it’s the song’s lyrics, which are introspective but down to earth; Browne is talking rather than versifying, and it makes a world of difference. The song is still a bummer, but his over-earnest mood seems earned.

Which leads us to “For Everyman,” the first of many anatomies of the melancholy of Seventies Man to come. Browne wrote this “big statement” as a retort to the elitist-retreatist rhetoric of the very rich David Crosby’s “Wooden Ships”; sail away from it all, Browne says, but I’ll be here waiting for all the folk who can’t afford expensive sailboats. Personally I’m not convinced Browne’s Barbra Streisand-like concern for the “little people” isn’t pure condescension, but “For Everyman” works for me for the simple reason that Browne sounds impassioned and the song sounds impassioned too.

But if the title track was the best For Everyman had to offer, I’d write it off as too little too late. What really saves the album are the cuts on which Browne shakes off his funk and lowers himself to playing songs you’ll actually be happy to hear come on the radio. My favorite is “Redneck Friend,” a cranked-up rave-up on which perpetual Brown sideman David Lindley makes a big, distinctive noise and guest star Elton John (credited as “Rockaday Johnnie”) goes all Jerry Lee Lewis on the 88s. And “Honey let me introduce you to my redneck friend” is as good a lyric hook as you’ll hear in a week of Saturdays. Browne’s take on “Take It Easy” (which he cowrote with Glenn Frey) also provides a tasty break from the gloom, but as much as it hurts me to say it Browne’s version doesn’t do anything the Eagles’ version doesn’t. So what’s the point?

On the unexpected pregnancy anthem “Ready or Not” Browne limns a universal sentiment with an eye for the concrete detail that, along with the nice melody and Lindley’s electric fiddle, makes the song. After describing how he met the lady in question in a crowded Hollywood barroom he adds, “I punched an unemployed actor/Defending her dignity/He stood up and knocked me through that barroom door/And that girl came home with me.” A touch of humor does Browne well, and it’s something Browne would do well to remember.

As he would go on to demonstrate on later LPs, Browne has a knack for the downcast anthem; he’s simpatico with the pointlessly toiling pretenders and hears the strangled cries of lawyers in love and counts himself amongst those hippies who suddenly find themselves nursing a bad case of curdled idealism and running on empty at the wrong side of the Seventies.

It’s powerful stuff, a lot of it, but when it comes to prophets of disappointment I’ll take John Mellencamp any day. Why? Because despite what he says on “On Everyman” Browne’s downtrodden are yuppies—beaten lawyers and soul-weary bankers and rich rock stars who have lost their way. The former John Cougar (and Bruce Springsteen, of course) sing to the huddled masses. Jackson Browne has chosen to become the Woody Guthrie of moneyed folk, and there’s something perverse in that. Which is partly what I like about him. And if that isn’t doubly perverse, I don’t know what is.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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