LISTENING TO Jackson Browne is like bobbing for apples--choice morsels are there, but his peculiar mixture of poignancy and banality often makes his overall message slip away. At their best, his lyrics serve as universal statements about the human condition. But on his fourth and most recent album, The Pretender, Browne loses his impact, lapsing into self-indulgence.
Perhaps Browne's difficulty in communicating his feelings stems from his preoccupation with his wife's tragic suicide during the recording of this album. Browne was left with a four-year old son and a desperate need for emotional catharsis. Yet, in his testament to his boy, "The Only Child," Browne is too lyrically lazy to generate much sympathy. With clumsy syntactical twists and forced rhymes he solemnly observes:
That there are those who feel themselves exiled,
On whom the future never smiled,
And upon whose lives the heartache has been piled.
But any crispness of tone is swallowed by the sugar plum violin in the background. And though Eagle member Don Henley and J.D. Souther harmonize pleasantly with Browne, they cannot salvage the hackneyed words.
On "Daddy's Tune," Browne is so wrapped up in his message that he fails to focus his lyrics. The track examines his distant relationship with his own father, but Browne appears to be caught in a pool of quicksand--the more he tries to convey emotion, the more bogged down he becomes. When he writes that he's "searching for truth and bound for glory," he sounds like he's composing a national anthem. Though the cut begins on this solemn note, he further loses credibility as he switches to an up-beat jazz tempo accompanied by bleating horns.
Instead of a trumpet, a harp weakens "Linda Paloma." Arthurt Gerst, the Liberace of the harp, turns this song into an appropriate theme for "The Edge of Night." Browne's voice also falters on this track, when he sings about his "Mexican dove." Usually, his vocals are sincere if methodical; he's more a hoe tilling the soil than a barreling steamroller. But his range is severely limited, and it shows here as his voice cracks reaching for a high note. Still, Browne's decision to stray his Southern California roots to try a Mexican ballad demonstrates a willingness to take artistic risks. Too bad his sensitivity is lost in a flamenco format.
Browne is less adventurous on "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate." Rather than build metaphor upon metaphor as in the stronger songs on his third album, Late for the Sky, he relies upon one image--the dark and silent gate--throughout the song. The remainder of the lyrics are direct but dull: "The only thing that makes me cry, is the kindness in my baby's eye." And the music functions only as a background motif for Browne's poetry, which isn't really worth spotlighting. Drummer Jeff Porcara could easily be pounding away with one hand tied behind him, and pianist Craig Doerge is no Rick Wakeman. Once the violin is added, the song's mushiness begins to resemble overcooked cream of wheat.
But there are moments when Browne realizes his genius. Combining natural imagery with personal observations, he reaches his purest emotional level on "The Fuse." This song clicks like clockwork, both musically and lyrically. As he shifts from soft to hard rock during the track, Browne conveys his apocalyptic vision of time as a fuse:
There's a fire high in the empty sky,
Where the sound meets the shore,
There's a long distance loneliness,
Rolling out over the desert floor.
Imitating an auctioneer and his bidders, the piano and percussion trade back and forth, until they fade out underneath David Lindley's hummingbird slide guitar.
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