Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Jackson Browne Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Lives in the Balance (1985, Asylum)

A

In terms of sheer artistic ambition, Late for the Sky or Running on Empty may stand as Browne’s crowning achievement, but taken purely on a song-by-song basis, Browne may have never made a more solid album than Lives in the Balance, and for one simple reason: this may very well be the catchiest set of songs Browne has ever delivered to the public. The hooks just never let up, which is all the more impressive a feat when you consider that this is also Browne’s most overtly political album yet.  The heated politics of the lyrics means the songs aren’t always obviously commercial, but the melodies are strong and memorable enough that the songs still sink in quickly and are fun to sing along to. “Soldier of Plenty,” the Top 40 hit “For America,” the reggae-styled “Till I Go Down” and the Chilean-flavored, pan-piped-driven title track are the most political songs here, but there are also some lighter, more accessible moments in the rocker “Candy,” the gorgeous ballad “In the Shape of a Heart” (one of Browne’s most underrated songs), and the album closer “Black and White.” It wasn’t released as a single, but the catchiest song on here might be the incredibly impressive bilingual story-song “Lawless Avenues”; the lyric is awfully heavy, but it’s coupled with an upbeat and vibrant rhythm track with an irresistibly infectious chorus and a playful arrangement that finds Browne and his band singing in Spanish for much of the final third of the song.   

World in Motion (1989, Elektra)

A –    

Browne’s final album of the Eighties is hurt only by the fact that Browne isn’t quite as successful here at fusing his more political lyrics to strong melodies, which gets the second side off to a slow start. “When the Stone Begins to Turn” is also just a little bit too topical, including a direct reference to Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment that has caused the song to age horribly. That aside, the album boasts a large handful of the most criminally overlooked songs Browne’s ever written. The gorgeous melodies and unusually optimistic lyrics of the side-closers “Anything Can Happen” and “Lights and Virtues” are both goose-bump-inducing and inspirational, while the fantastic “Enough of the Night” finds Browne returning to the sunny, sophisticated glossy adult-contemporary pop of Hold Out and Lawyers in Love to great results, and “Chasing You into the Light” is an incredibly addictive breezy acoustic rocker powered by what might be the coolest guitar riff in Browne’s catalog outside of “Lawyers in Love.” Browne also turns in a first-rate memorable cover of Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot” that momentarily puts politics inside in favor of a vibrant and passionate display of nationalism that people of any persuasion can rally behind. This album sold poorly, but it’s one of Browne’s most underrated albums.

I’m Alive (1993, Elektra)   

A

Perhaps realizing that his foray into political songs eroded his audience and put an end to his success on the singles charts, Browne avoids politics entirely on his first album of the Nineties, fashioning a sophisticated meditation on life and love that makes the album something of a sequel to his introspective albums of the early-and-mid-Seventies like Late for the Sky or The Pretender. It’s not quite as consistently hook-heavy as any of his Eighties albums, but it at least feels just as accessible, and the best songs here are true knockouts. “Sky Blue and Black” is one of his more memorable late-career ballads, while the reggae-styled “Everywhere I Go” is just plain fun. The gospel-tinged “My Problem Is You” is just as catchy and playful, and Browne even hilariously name-drops Madonna during the song’s extended fade-out. Pretty much everything about “Take This Rain” is ingenious, be it the clever lyric of the song’s chorus, or its lovely music, the verses of which are vaguely reminiscent of the Drifters classic “Under the Boardwalk.” Best of all is the acoustic rock of the album’s breezy title track, which is perfect “driving song” material and boasts one of the sunniest and most vibrant rhythm tracks in all of Browne’s catalog, highlighted by the great guitar work of Mark Goldenberg and Scott Thurston.

Looking East (1996, Elektra)

C +

While I’m Alive felt like a rebirth of sorts, Looking East is unfortunately a lot like For Everyman: it’s all very competent, and occasionally even fairly inspired, and makes a perfectly adequate album piece, but you can’t help but feel like most of the cuts are just leftovers and the melodies just frankly aren’t all that memorable, a problem that has plagued all of Browne’s post-I’m Alive albums. (It is worth noting, though, that Browne’s band members are credited as co-writers on nearly every cut on this disc, which suggests that these songs may have emerged from studio jamming, rarely ever a great recipe for a winning melody.)  Still, if you don’t mind wading through the glut of filler, there are some decent songs to be found here, particularly “Some Bridges,” “The Barricades of Heaven,” and, best of all, “Alive in the World,” which would have fit effortlessly onto I’m Alive

The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne (1997, Elektra)

C –

Included in this feature due to its inclusion of two new studio tracks, this is easily one of the most head-scratching and unsatisfying greatest hits packages of the ‘90s.  Browne’s Top 40 hits only number twelve, so it shouldn’t have been hard to incorporate them all onto one disc and still have some space left over for some memorable album cuts or new material. Instead, only four of his Top 40 hits are here – four. Missing in action are “Here Come Those Tears Again,” “The Load-Out,” “Stay,” “That Girl Could Sing,” “Boulevard,” “Lawyers in Love,” “For America,” and the incredibly fun Clarence Clemons duet “You’re a Friend of Mine.” [Eventually, the 2004 double-disc anthology The Very Best of Jackson Browne would correct this oversight and incorporate most of these previously-missing hits, although even that package still inexplicably leaves out “That Girl Could Sing,” “For America,” and “You’re a Friend of Mine,” which is maddening.] Oddly enough, the non-single “Call It a Loan” is the one song included here from Hold Out. The album does mark the first appearance on a Browne album of his Fast Times at Ridgemont High contribution “Somebody’s Baby,” and the two new cuts (“The Rebel Jesus” and “The Next Voice You Hear”) are both fine, if not exactly essential, either, but this compilation is so thoroughly bungled and missing too many hits to be worth recommending, and fans wanting all of Browne’s Top 40 hits in one place really have no option at present except to make their own mix CD, sadly. 

The Naked Ride Home (2002, Elektra)

B –  

One might hope that the album title was metaphorical but, as it turns out, the album-opening title cut is, in fact, actually about hitching a ride in a vehicle in one’s birthday suit. It’s not exactly a promising start to the album, but thankfully, it’s followed by the breezy uptempo acoustic rock of “The Night Inside Me,” easily Browne’s best song since “I’m Alive” nine years earlier.  (If only Browne wrote more songs just like it, his late-career albums would be a lot more memorable than they are.)  “About My Imagination,” “For Taking the Trouble” and “Never Stop” are all fairly solid as well. The sheer sprawl of the songs works against the record, though, only one track in the album’s back half clocking in at under five minutes, and Browne still has a problem with wedding his more socio-political numbers to strong melodies. There’s a little over half of a great album here, though. 

Time the Conqueror (2008, Inside)

D –

Browne’s first album outside of the Elektra/Asylum family and his first for an indie label, this is also easily Browne’s worst album. There are two major things wrong with this disc. First of all, Browne’s no longer editing himself, and seven of the ten tracks here clock in at over five minutes, with the unbearably long “Where Were You” clocking in at just under ten minutes. Secondly, while Browne’s still in reasonably good form as a lyricist, there are simply no hooks or strong melodies anywhere to be found here, and the songs are virtually impossible to remember even just an hour after you’ve listened to the album. I have listened to this album in full at least half a dozen times, and I still cannot remember a single one of the melodies on here. “Going Down to Cuba” is the closest thing here to a good song, but it’s still well beneath what Browne is capable of as a composer.

Standing in the Breach (2014, Inside)

B -

There may be nothing here quite as immediately catchy as late-career singles of Browne’s like “I’m Alive” or “The Night Inside Me,” and Browne still has a tendency to stretch songs out for too long, but this album is still undeniably a step back in the right direction, and songs like “You Know the Night,” “Leaving Winslow,” “If I Could Be Anywhere,” and “Here” are easily superior to anything on Time the Conqueror.