Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky
I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around the love that critics once had for Jackson Browne, and listening to “Late for the Sky” three times hasn’t gotten me to the point where I’ve solved this particular puzzle. Like most early 1970s soft rock, it makes for a great accompaniment to those mundane tasks of daily living, like laundry or emptying the dishwasher. It rarely challenges you, rarely forces you to listen carefully. It’s background music, and dear lord we certainly need that: the world is just a better place to be in when it has a soundtrack. But other (mostly) White guy bands like Chicago and the Doobie Brothers were also doing a damned fine job of that, and critics weren’t building temples to them. So, why the love for Mr. Browne?
I sometimes like to think of Browne as Eagles-lite, with both frolicking in that same soft rock playpen, and you would think critics, who often seem to be in the business of jerking off their musician friends, would have been all over that band, yet you would be wrong. “Hotel California”, the 118th ranked album of all time in the last Rolling Stone poll and #108 at Acclaimed Music, could not crack the Top 30 of the Pazz and Jop in either 1976, when it was released, or 1977, when it had dominion over our airwaves. I am no fan of the Eagles, but that is just whack. What the fuck were they listening to? A lot of Graham Parker, for one thing and, in 1977, more Jackson Browne.
So, what of this album? There’s a real lethargy to a lot of it, a laid back California cool that lacks the dirty passion of truly great rock. No one here seems to be breaking a sweat: it sounds pristine, the musicianship is sharp and precise, and with every perfectly bland note you can sense the early punks gritting their teeth.
There are two exceptions. “The Road and the Sky” is a honky tonk rocker, and you can almost hear his band saying, “Hell, yes”, as they dive in, with great piano and some slick shredding. But Browne’s heart isn’t really in it: he seems uncomfortable with the pace, his vocal showing no more fire than when he’s singing about another beautiful sunset. He gives the band 3:07 to have some fun, then it’s back to our regular programming. He feels more committed on “Walking Slow”, an almost danceable tune with some funky bass notes, a nice guitar solo and joyful handclaps.
A few of the slower tunes stand out, at least in some of their elements. The title track is lovely, a meditation of sorts with a real sense of loss and wonder, and a tune out of a contemporary western. There is lots of pleasing piano on “The Late Show”, and a melancholy beauty to what I think is fiddle on “For A Dancer” and “Before the Deluge”.
Maybe the fourth listen, or the fifth, will be the one when the light turns on. I’ll be spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast, the sliced up banana and Nutella off to the side, when Browne will sing “When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky” (a lovely line, to be sure), that beautiful fiddle will play us out, and I will stand at the kitchen counter, stunned, while the toast turns cold and dry and the banana ages out of my eating range. I felt that just a tiny bit right now, so I know it can happen. I’m rooting for you to get me there, Jackson.