My first memory of Jackson Browne is of the cheery sounds of “Somebody’s Baby” on a classic radio station, the dance track betraying the melancholic lyrics of self-doubt and rejection as I did a jig in the back seat of the car. I remember the windows were open and the wind poured in on a hot summer day as my mother drove me to soccer or baseball, I can’t remember. For me the track was just sweet sounds and groovy beat. As a millennial growing up in the 90s, I had no concept of what it meant to be an adult. I just wasn’t old enough to understand the complex emotions Browne and others lived with every day.
Later on, in my 20s, I would rediscover Browne’s music, helped along by my father’s penchant for quoting “The Pretender” whenever he wanted to make a point about modern life. Despite this, it wasn’t until I picked up a vinyl copy of “Late for the Sky,” Browne’s third album, that I really got into the artist’s music. His particular blend of dynamic composition and intensely personal lyrics felt compassionate and exciting in equal measure, so it felt natural to move deeper into his music.
The first track to speak to me on “Late for the Sky” was the song “For a Dancer” on side two. Amidst a beautiful melody, Browne captures the life of a recently deceased friend, a person who would have urged his surviving friends to dance instead of cry at his memory. The singer examines mortality, meaning, and the cycle of life as the chorus turns into a life-affirming dance of its own. Browne seems to be urging himself and others to live fully despite the daily fear of losing it all:
“Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know”
After the power of that track had faded within me, I knew I had touched onto something special. The knife-edge place that Browne was poised upon was not only meaningful, but dangerous in equal measure. On the album the songwriter examines his subject matter with religious fervor, whether it be love, meaning, or environmental degradation. He circles around from every angle until the clear-eyed courage he possesses becomes one of a martyr. Browne, unique among songwriters, will lead you into the light that keeps darkness at bay.
Yet I still find myself surprised by how accessible Browne is on “Late for the Sky,” even as he reaches for the stars. Despite compositions that stretch on in false ends and orchestral fades, or even the sound of a car door slamming, I get the strange feeling that Browne is my best friend whispering in my ear at the local bar. He is immediate but not fleeting, tender yet expansive in his philosophy. This feeling is exceptional on “The Late Show:”
“Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well
Anyway that’s how it seems, it’s hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing
‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care
But when you know that you’ve got a real friend somewhere
Suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear”
As much as any musician can be a listener’s friend, Browne plays that role on “Late for the Sky.” Since its release, musicians such as Bruce Springsteen have hailed it as a masterpiece, one that speaks to man in search of an elusive peace. I, for one, will continue to go back to it for its tender power. It’s a rare album that feels so sad and courageous in equal measure.