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In 1974, Jackson Browne released his third album, his masterpiece Late For The Sky, a record that was brilliantly constructed in every way from the first note to the last. It was an album that proved Browne was a master of chronicling the desolate intricacies of lost romance, of sorrow and death and always with an eye on what was going on on the planet as the prophetic apocalyptic closing track “Before the Deluge,” a song that in every way predicted what is going on right now revealed.
There were several other good albums and some that may have been more commercially successful, but none that had the overall impact of that album. It seemed as if Browne may have been listening too closely to the advice of others combined with a desire to keep up with contemporary production standards instead of following his own instincts.
Always a good performer, his best concerts were his solo ones which were always intimate and downright friendly affairs. You could be sitting in the last row of the highest balcony and Browne had a way of making you feel he was singing directly to you.
Now 40 years later Browne comes close, probably as close as he’s going to get to matching the emotional heights of that album though the subject matter is very different. Like Bob Dylan, Browne has excelled at capturing the feel of the time he’s singing in and about, though he does it in a more one on one personal way. Where Dylan is New York City, grime, concrete and grit, Browne is California, sunshine, ocean, trees and earthquakes.
The Standing in the Breach starts with a song Browne wrote in 1967, but never recorded in the studio, “The Birds of Saint Marks.” Browne does it in an arrangement that pays tribute to The Byrds and in a strange way it’s the most hopeful song on the album. It takes Browne a couple of more songs before he starts to get to the heart of the album, and he gently eases his way in. The overall feeling of the album is of someone partly in a daze trying to figure out what the hell happened because every time he steps out of the daze and looks around, he sees a country that’s no longer his own and a world on the brink of destruction.
This happens on the third song, “The Long Way Around,” which has a carefree melody, one that you might sing to yourself walking down a tree lined road, until he sings:
It’s so hard keeping track of what’s gone wrong
The covenant unravels, and the news just rolls along
I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago
It’s hard to say which did more ill
Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill
“Leaving Winslow” holds onto the road theme and with a country-esque melody and feel also has a carefree attitude until the last verse:
I keep on hearing ’bout the disappearing ozone layer
I keep on hearing ’bout the disappearing Greenland Shelf
I keep hearing all about the disappearing middle class
I figure I’ll be doing some disappearing myself
However the music turns dark and ominous on “If I Could Be Anywhere” which has this second verse:
Searching for the future among the things we’re throwing away
Swimming through the ocean of junk we produce every day
You have to admit it’s clever
Maybe the pinnacle of human endeavor
When things are made to throw away but never made to disappear
And then later:
The world’s going to shake itself free of our greed somehow
And the world can’t take it, that you can see
If the oceans don’t make it neither will we
And with all of that, even though he knows the oceans might not make it, the premise of the song is if he could be anywhere, he’d want to be here.
Things lighten up for a Woody Guthrie song that Browne and Rob Wasserman wrote the music too, “You Know The Night.” The song has a melody that’s halfway between country and Van Morrison and Browne knows how to bring out the poetry on the song especially on these lines:
And I felt like you feel
When you feel like the angels are curling your hair
And you feel like the devil is scratching your heel
This is followed by another cover by Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela, the incredible “Walls And Doors.” Browne makes the song his own and the arrangement and performance is reminiscent of Late For The Sky, but it’s the refrain that gets you every time it’s sung:
That’s how it’s always been
And I know you know it
There can be freedom only when nobody owns it
Then comes perhaps the heaviest song of the album, “Which Side,” which Browne first sang for the demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street. Borrowing part of the melody as well as the list factor of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” against background singers chanting “which side,” Browne lays it out:
The corporations attacking
The natural world – drilling and fracking
All done with the backing of the craven and corrupt
Or the ones who fight
For the Earth with all their might
And in the name of all that’s right
Confront and disrupt
And then on the next verse:
They’ve got subsidies for billionaires, there’s a bailout for the banks
A monopoly on medicine, and a sale on armored tanks
The whole damned country’s being sold – out that revolving door
Between Washington and Wall Street like it’s one big Dollar Store
There’s a lot more and Browne gets it, every grisly detail.
But it is on the title track, “Standing In The Breech,” which in a way is a follow-up to “Before The Deluge,” where Browne searches for one last gasp of hope with the full realization that wish may never arrive. It is quite possibly the most eloquent song he’s written with lines like:
And though the earth may tremble and cast our works aside
And though our efforts resemble the fluctuating tide
We rise and fall with the trust and belief
That love redeems us each
And bend our backs and hearts together standing in the breach
Yet he ends with:
You don’t know how it’s going to happen now
After all that’s come undone
And you know the world you’re waiting for may not come
No it may not come
But you know the change the world needs now
Is there, in everyone
The album ends with “Here,” a song about moving on in the face of loss. But on this album, it’s not the political songs that give the album its power and heart and make it one of Browne’s most powerful.
Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter. His site and blog can be found here: http://www.peterstonebrown.com/