There's this old episode of Law and Order about the Sarah Jane Olson/Kathleen Soliah case, and the question it poses, broadly, is: when do get to let go of who we once were? The episode in question involves murder, so the stakes are high, but the question's general: do we reach a point of historical distance when we either can or must completely release some ideas that once seemed hard-wired into our consciousness?
I pose this ridiculous because unanswerable question while sitting in an Evanston hotel room listening to the new Jackson Browne album. His name, if it resonates, stands first for a particular set of seventies-related ideas - about masculinity, and artistry, and American culture - and then for the same ideas in their mutated eighties incarnations. I get the sense that more people have opinions about his work than have actually given it a fair hearing, but I can't prove that, so I'm not going to dwell on it. I am always wanting to rescue symbols from their calcification and see what their blood sounds like, rushing through their arteries down there under their skin. It's the ex-Catholic in me.
When I listen to Browne's best work - the Saturate Before Using album, and Late for the Sky, and The Pretender - I, personally, hear only the faint ghosts of those qualities that had become so abhorrent by the mid-eighties that Browne felt compelled to write things "Lawyers In Love" (itself a great tune, though I am biased: his melodies cut right through me) in order to distance himself from that introspective, perhaps overly philosophical young man who'd sung "Song For Adam" with the hurt in his voice all up-close-and-personal. And in fact the ghosts, when they rise up, now give off a luminescence wholly different from the one that cost Browne and all the other singer-songwriters the Rolling Stone cover when their time came.
So, anyhow, here's what's up: I went out for and early dinner tonight and stopped in a Borders to get a newspaper, and I found myself in the music section, because I am helpless within fifty feet of a music section. And there in an endcap stood a new Jackson Browne album. "Solo Acoustic Vol. 1" it's called. I checked the tracklisting and saw that he does "The Barricades of Heaven" on it, and "Fountian of Sorrow" and "The Pretender," too, and that was pretty much the end of the argument, because I love those songs. I love everything about them. And I wondered how they'd sound; I was ready for them to be what people call "unplugged versions" (which, to me, means "condescending mockeries of the originals which, in their trope-generating putrescence, are not fit for hogs" but that's just me) but had higher hopes. When you take a song out of a full-band environment and play it with just one instrument and your voice, there are a number of ways to go about it.
Well. The songs on here sound astonishing, to be honest with you; I generally hate live albums and avoid them with great fervor. But these songs have waited patiently for years to sound like this: to shed themselves of the trappings in which they once willingly luxuriated, to argue their case on their own merits. One might argue that I'm a guy naturally inclined to cheer for this kind of presentation, but a quick look through the Last Plane archives will tell you that I either don't listen to much singer-songwriter huff-n-puff or that I'm disinclined to talk about it. I'd rather not say which. I will say, though, that the new Jackson Browne is as persuasive a case as can be made for confessional folk: it doesn't take "confessional" to mean "vulnerable," and it doesn't use the confessional angle as an excuse for lazy writing. It wrests songs from their original context with ruthless brute force and holds them up like still-beating hearts from sacrificial victims' chests.
I don't expect to convince many people that Jackson Browne's new album sounds better in October of 2005 than a whole host of other of-the-moment things do. But - well - it just does, that's all. It's not, as I suspect it'll be described when it gets described at all, a triumph over age or anything like that: songs don't really have ages, and neither do singers once they punch the clock. So it's just a guy playing songs. A guy whose voice is nuanced and easy and very gorgeous, playing songs that, as it turns out, are powerful enough all by their lonesome selves to completely command all of my attention. "Lives in the Balance," especially, which sounded a little corny when young American men and women weren't getting blown to bits daily, gave me chills.
"Will give you chills," I almost wrote, but I know how it is with the historical distance. Anyhow. That's the news from an Evanston hotel room. You can expect to hear from me some more, from different hotel rooms, in the coming days.
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