Forgotten jukebox classic: Jackson Browne’s “That Girl Could Sing”

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American singer and guitarist Jackson Browne is probably best known for his 1970s hits such as “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes” and “The Load-Out,” to name a few. However, Browne’s history of meaningful songs continued into the 1980s. “That Girl Could Sing” is one example of Browne’s artistry and adaptability for a new decade.

Jackson Browne and 1970s American rock

Browne rose to prominence after his first single, “Doctor My Eyes” was released in 1972. The song received a great deal of radio airplay. The 1970s saw Jackson churn out hit after hit. Based on the way his songs were created, Browne seemed to work in the singer-songwriter tradition popular in the 1970s. His songs were laid back with catchy rhythms. However, the songs typically contained a cohesive narrative. Browne’s instrumentation was less folk-oriented than traditional singer-songwriters. Instead, Browne’s music had a clear rock edge, but the rhythms and riffs were never heavy enough to drown out the slice-of -life narratives.

Elsewhere on American radio in the early 1970s, r&b groups were evolving into a near-disco sound, and British rock bands like spanned a subgenre gamut from progressive rock to heavy metal–sounds that would come to define the decade. Thudding beats and noodling guitar work made a foundation on which to cast lyrics about the trappings of rock culture and edgy life-philosophies. Comparatively, Browne’s work was quiet, but his trademark guitar and wise, if sometimes heartbroken lyrics earned Browne his fair share of listeners.

Jackson Browne and “That Girl Could Sing”

“That Girl Could Sing” is found on Browne’s 1980 album, “Hold Out.” The song’s story is simple. The girl of the title is a lover with commitment issues. What she leaves in her wake is her beautiful voice. The narrator never tells audiences what she has sung to leave such a heart-rending impression on him, but it doesn’t matter.

“She wasn’t much good at sticking around/but that girl could sing,” Browne informs audiences. Listeners can’t tell what he misses most, the actual girl, or her voice. Browne’s lyrics sound like lines from a Lost Generation novel: “Running into the midnight/with her clothes flipping in the wind/reaching into the heart of the darkness for the tenderness with in.”

With his sparse lyricism, Browne details a modern problem–serial daters who hook up with others to ease loneliness, only to find that one of them has problems with commitment. As the title girl runs from the city to the shadows, she is inaccessible. She doesn’t know how to say good-bye, and her voice haunts the narrator like a ghost.

Browne’s guitar work is simple in the verses, a terse mid-tempo riff that sounds as though it is picking at the truth. The instrumentation gets bigger during the chorus, and the guitar line swells into a searing solo. The vocals, too, are clear and no-nonsense. But Browne’s vocals are emotive; there is tension and regret as he pines for his hard-to-find lover.

Because Browne’s 1970s hits were so massive, it is easy to overlook what he accomplished in 1980 and beyond. “That Girl Could Sing” is Browne at one of his finest moments. He sounds poised to tackle a new decade of American music.

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