The new album by Jackson Browne is heartening for several reasons, not the least of which is that almost 50 years after touchstone works like For Everyman and Late for the Sky helped a generation of young romantics cope with life’s disappointments, Browne is still the master of crafting lyrics that not only sound good, but that get to the heart of sometimes complicated matters. And Browne can turn that trick in a variety of settings, both emotional and musical.
It’s also gratifying that on Browne’s new album, Downhill From Everywhere, he sounds as if he’s barely aged from when he was a 20-something songwriting prodigy who rolled out those morose classics, as well as the subsequent major hit album, 1977’s Running on Empty.
Truth is, Jackson Browne has been there for us all along, checking in every several years with pointed poetry about social and personal injustices. And the new album is no different, with Browne coming in both with specific targets like the struggles of Mexican immigrants into the States and more generalized notions of basic human longing (“Sometimes all anybody needs is the human touch” from “A Human Touch”) and searching in general (“If all I find is freedom, that’s all right,” he says on “Still Looking for Something”).
Jackson Browne—he of the “No Nukes” activism and cited by none other than Randy Newman as the “only one who gives a shit” about the wrongs of the world—still puts human concerns at the fore. On the lovely “The Dreamer,” an immigrant family comes over the southern border, only to fall victim to deportation under Trump Administration rules. “Love is Love” comes from the viewpoint of a priest, Father Rick, negotiating the poverty-stricken streets of Haiti on his motorbike, “where people work and live and struggle every day.”
Matters of the heart are a concern, quite literally, on “My Cleveland Heart,” on which Browne describes replacing his beating heart with a mechanical one: “They don’t break, or bleed, or make mistakes like my heart makes.” It’s familiar emotional territory, if in a somewhat poppier package than the “Fountain of Sorrow” or “The Pretender” of yore.
The musical settings are varied here. There’s some fairly straightforward rock and roll with “Until Justice is Real,” on which Browne implores world citizens to steel themselves to do the good work they’re being called to do. There are the Latin flourishes of “The Dreamer” and the acoustic guitar and piano of “Minutes to Downtown” to the more electric Spanish flavor of “A Song for Barcelona,” Browne’s love song to that city, which he says “restored my fire and gave me back my appetite.” The album’s closer, “Barcelona” is Downhill From Everywhere’s best synthesis of the personal and the political, both laid out plainly in a musical setting in which it all goes down smoothly.
Browne wrote or cowrote all 10 tracks on Downhill From Everywhere, and also produced the album, his first since 2014’s Standing in the Breach. Many of the musicians on the new album are longtime collaborators—guitarists Greg Leisz and Val McCullum, bassist Bob Glaub and drummers Mauricio Lewak and Russ Kunkel. While former longtime guitarist and co-conspirator David Lindley is not present here, Leisz’s lap steelwork on several songs certainly brings back that vibe. Also helping shape the songs are a trio of female vocalists, Chavonne Stewart, Alethea Mills and Leslie Mendelson, the latter duetting with Browne on “A Human Touch.”
Now in his early 70s, Browne has expanded his worldview considerably from the early days, both literally and figuratively. And even if he shows no signs of letting up on his geopolitical and humanitarian concerns on Downhill From Everywhere, it’s also satisfying to know he’s still willing and able to lend an ear on affairs of the heart.
Follow journalist Sam Richards at Twitter.com/samrichardsWC.