Seminal Californian singer-songwriter Jackson Browne has been a fixture on rock’s “Best-of” lists for decades now and rightfully so. Over the course of 13 studio albums, his place as one of America’s most enduring, best-loved songsmiths is undeniable and here on his 14th – Standing In The Breach, he’s as astute and incisive as ever. It seems as though the now-over-60 peacenik songwriters of decades past (if they’re still alive and kicking that is) are fairly frustrated with how many deaf ears upon their message has managed to fall since the summer of love. Last week we looked at Lucinda Williams’ latest Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone which does a fantastic job of articulating social and political discontent through the prism of wizened personal reflection and the now 65-year-old Browne does much the same to great effect on his latest offering.
The origins of first single and album opener The Birds of St. Marks however trace back to before Browne was even a household name. At the tender age of 18 after his first formative period spent in New York’s iconic Greenwich Village, Browne wrote the song with fellow Laurel Canyon-ers The Byrds in mind and if its impeccable ‘70s song craft isn’t enough of a tribute, the electric 12-string Rickenbacker riffs that punctuate the song’s mellow-gold vibe certainly are. Yeah Yeah is a cruisy, but unfortunately fairly forgettable love song that stops just short of taking flight lyrically or dynamically.
However the opening line of The Long Way Round “I don’t know what to say about these days” kicks open the door for Browne’s inimitable storytelling chops and a shot at late-career redemption with everything from his own boyhood nostalgia to observations on the morality of gun-control. The instrumentation is beautifully understated as well – a recurring theme throughout Standing In The Breach – with fluid, often reversed guitar countering the folkie traditionalism perfectly.
If you’re going to have a full-fledged country shuffle complete with pedal steel on your record – not unlike Leaving Winslow – it might be seen as a little on-the-nose to fill the first verse with so much train imagery but then, Browne manages to redeem himself and the admirable social outlook portrayed across Standing In The Breach with the lyric “I keep on hearing all about the disappearing middle class/I figure I’ll be doing some disappearing myself”.
The tape-flanged vocals that herald the start of If I Could Be Anywhere have the wonderfully controlled slow vibrato and husk of a late-era Elvis Costello. They sit well in tandem with velvety female backing vocals over a Hammond organ and piano rich arrangement that is admirably nuanced and dynamic before the laid-back twang of You Know The Night swings things back to the more romantic end of Browne’s musings.
“Ever since the world’s existence there’s one thing that is certain/There are those who build walls and those who open doors” is the stunning parallel drawn in its first line by Walls and Doors between love and society, qualified at the end of the chorus by “There can be freedom only when nobody holds you”. The bouncy, southern-fried funk of Which Side? has some pretty damn soulful backing vocals and righteously indicts a litany of social injustices in no uncertain terms, all the while posing the titular question “which side are you on?” The penultimate title track, like most of the record has a dynamic precision and control to it that is rarely heard nowadays and segues into the record’s demure climax Here which, with its stark honesty and impassioned delivery, brings Standing In The Breach to a breathtaking close.
Often, it’s a bit of a strained affair when artists of yesteryear come out with new music instead of appeasing a reliable fanbase with the greatest hits. That could not be further than the truth with Jackson Browne. He’s not compromising for anyone here and with the average song-length tipping the 6-minute mark, it’s clear he’s going to do and say whatever the hell he wants because by this point, he’s damn well earned it. Jackson Browne’s 14th LP proves to be an insightful, conscious and heartfelt record that proves his unmistakable songwriting voice is just as relevant in music today as it was nearly half a century ago.