BY the end of Part 3 we had reached the mid-1980s with our hero beginning to introduce social conscience to the music on his album Lawyers in Love. For 1986’s Lives in the Balance, he ramped the politics up to eleven, levelling his aim at President Reagan and US policy in Central America.
On the first track, For America, Browne sings: ‘And from the comfort of a dreamer’s bed/And the safety of my own head/I went on speaking of the future/While other people fought and bled.’ The title song sees him declaring that he wants ‘to know who the men in the shadows are/I want to hear somebody asking them why.’ The Iran-Contra scandal had yet to surface and when it did, some months after the album’s release, Browne released a video of the track at his own expense. He announced: ‘I imply that the truth is kept from us on a regular basis. I flat out say the government lies. These things are no longer heresy.’ Lawless Avenues and Soldier of Plenty keep up the political theme but there is also room for a love song, In The Shape of a Heart, inspired by his late wife Phyllis Major, who committed suicide in 1976. ‘It was the ruby that she wore/On a stand beside the bed/In the hour before dawn/When I knew she was gone.’
The album was not a best-seller, and some critics were unhappy at Browne venting his opinions on current affairs, but he told Rolling Stone magazine: ‘I like this album as much as any I’ve ever done. There’s a certain comfort, a security that I have, talking about something that I feel this strongly about. And whether or not an album succeeds wildly or not, that’s intact.’
The next album, World in Motion, took three years to complete and refers to Central American scandals as well as nuclear disarmament. Again, many took exception to what was seen as his sermonising and the non-original tracks garnered most praise, particularly Steve Van Zandt’s I Am A Patriot.
To the relief of many, Browne reverted to introspective mode for 1993’s I’m Alive, which the New York Times described as his best record since Late For The Sky. The two albums share the same theme of a broken relationship – always fertile ground as also proved by Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Rickie Lee Jones’s Pirates and, more recently, Laura Veirs’s My Echo, to name but three. In this instance, Jackson had been dumped by the actress Daryl Hannah following a stormy relationship. The title track is explicit in its misery, but ends in defiance: ‘Hey look at the way I believed in you/And loved you all these years/Now you can fill a swimming pool with all my salty tears/If you’d have told me what was in your heart/But baby you lied/And I thought that it would kill me/But I’m alive.
Yeah, I’m alive.’
There are lots more good songs, including My Problem Is You, I’ll Do Anything and Too Many Angels but the standout is the eight-minute epic Sky Blue and Black, which for trivia fans featured in The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate, the first episode of Friends, a series which our daughter Elizabeth knows by heart having seen each programme a minimum of 30 times. This is a great song even by JB’s standards, raw emotion coming through as he promises: ‘If you ever need holding/Call my name, I’ll be there.’ I suppose a David Lindley solo would have been too much to ask for.
In the mid-1990s Browne struck up a relationship with Dianna Cohen, an artist and activist against plastic pollution, so it was perhaps inevitable that environmental themes would resurface on his next album, 1996’s Looking East. My favourite track, The Barricades of Heaven, is however an affectionate and affecting look back at his youth with soaring Hammond organ from Jeff Young.
Only two songs on the record are the work of Browne alone, and he would appear at this point to have reached something of a creative impasse. It wasn’t until 2002 that he came up with another original album, The Naked Ride Home. The opening title track is more like old times, albeit a bit more uptempo than the classics. The Night Inside Me continues in similar vein and made a minor impact on the US singles charts. There are several ‘funky’ group compositions which don’t do a lot for me but I do like About My Imagination and the closing Browne originals Don’t You Want To Be There? and My Stunning Mystery Companion.
In 2005 came a live album, Solo Acoustic Vol 1, including old favourites plus the lovely The Birds of St Mark’s, which Jackson wrote when he was 18 and had been lying around ever since. Volume 2 followed in 2008 and featured mainly more recent songs. That same year Browne released his first studio material in six years, Time The Conqueror. This gets off to a fine start with the title track, followed by the nostalgic Off of Wonderland.
Then it’s back to politics with The Drums of War, bemoaning US conduct in Iraq, and Where Were You? which criticises the Dubya administration’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Best of the rest are probably Just Say Yeah and the hymn-like Far From The Arms of Hunger.
Remarkably, well into the fourth decade of his career, JB’s clear and powerful voice has aged not one jot.
In 2010 came Love Is Strange: En Vivo Con Tino which is a live double CD recorded four years earlier during a triumphant tour of Spain by JB and, praise heaven, his old mucker David Lindley. This includes a version of These Days featuring the Spanish singing star Luz Casal on vocals, plus many more great moments. In Uncut magazine, veteran reviewer Bud Scoppa wrote: ‘Several of the songs Browne chose to revisit are from records on which Lindley didn’t appear, enabling the one-time partners to see what they could bring to the more recent material in tandem. The resulting performances are less renderings than transformations. Browne, with a crucial assist from Lindley, fluidly unifies his entire body of work.’
In 2014, following another six-year studio gap, came a delightful surprise, Standing In The Breach. This starts out with a welcome reprise of The Birds of St Mark’s.
The opening riff and the lyrics of The Long Way Around both reference These Days and remark on Browne’s journey since he wrote that song back in the Sixties. Similarly, Leaving Winslow pays homage to another track from For Everyman, Take it Easy. There are two excellent covers, of Woody Guthrie’s You Know The Night and a translation of Carlos Varela’s Walls and Doors.
The title track is another throwback to the golden Browne era while the final selection, Here, sees Jackson having his heart broken again.
Speaking of the classic era, 2015 saw the release of Live in Philadelphia, an official triple CD of a much-bootlegged 1975 radio performance by Browne and Lindley at the Main Point, Bryn Mawr. This is a treasure trove with many superb cover versions. Disc one, for example, opens with the traditional Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies and includes Nan O’Byrne’s Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes, made famous by Bonnie Raitt, Lowell George’s magnificent Long Distance Love, Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Warren Zevon’s Mohammed’s Radio.
Two more Zevon songs crop up later – Werewolves of London and Hasten Down The Wind. Throw in a bunch of oldies including Do You Wanna Dance, Sweet Little Sixteen and Runaway, plus versions of Browne’s most towering achievements including Fountain of Sorrow, For Everyman, Late for the Sky and Your Bright Baby Blues, and you have three hours of solid gold entertainment. Going back to Long Distance Love, Browne admits to the audience that he nicked it from the Little Feat main man. Lowell came round to Jackson’s house one night clutching a tape and got so wasted that he felt unable to ride his motorbike home and hold the tape at the same time, so he left it and Browne duly played and copied it. The song would appear on the Feat’s Last Record Album.
He announced last year that he had tested positive for the Great Lurgy but emerged unscathed.
July 23, 2021, will see the release of his 15th studio album, Downhill From Everywhere. A few tracks have already appeared and they sound up to snuff. My Cleveland Heart has plenty of lap steel, the title track could almost be prime Springsteen and A Little Soon To Say is Browne at his most soul-searching.
So that’s it, the JB story. Aged 72 and still going strong. Thank you to all those, mainly from the US, who sent supportive messages about the first three parts of the JB saga. Fingers crossed, maybe one day I’ll get to do a Part 5.