Jackson Browne: Downhill from Everywhere review – voice of the boomers faces his mortality

(Inside Recordings)
Still regarded as the most artful of 1970s west coast singer-songwriters, Browne frets about the environment and his use by date

“I’m still looking for something,” sings Jackson Browne on the opening track of his first album in eight years. “I’m way out over my due date.” It sounds like a stark admission, as if he’s as surprised as anyone that he’s still recording at 72.

Jackson Browne: Downhill From Everywhere artwork
Jackson Browne: Downhill from Everywhere album cover. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky

Browne’s reputation has helped keep him aloft. He was the most artful of the 1970s west coast songwriters, who didn’t just spill his guts in confessional style but chronicled the boomer generation’s uncertain and increasingly disillusioned path through a landscape in which hippy idealism had withered: “Caught between the longing for love and the struggle for legal tender,” as he put it on 1976’s The Pretender, a song that fairly accurately presaged the dawning of the yuppie era. When the yuppie era duly arrived, he didn’t necessarily grow with his audience – a significant portion of them deserted him, presumably turned off by his increasingly strident leftwing tone. By the mid-80s, there were substantially fewer takers for Browne’s angry and accusatory Lives in the Balance than for the less specific, well-things-have-certainly-changed wistfulness of his old pal Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast – though some of them returned when he dialled down the politics on 1993’s I’m Alive.

Nevertheless, decades later, there is a sense in which Browne still embodies the classic boomer singer-songwriter, at least insofar as he spends a lot of Downhill from Everywhere doing precisely the kinds of things that septuagenarian songwriters of a certain cast tend to do, including worrying about the environment, wondering aloud about the younger generation, dabbling in global music (there’s a Caribbean lilt to Love Is Love and a distinct Latin-American flavour to the rhythms of closer A Song for Barcelona) and writing love songs to a new partner who is evidently considerably younger than he is. “The years I’ve seen that fell between my date of birth and yours / fade beyond the altered shore of a river changing course,” he sings on Minutes to Downtown.

Browne is good at all this stuff. A May to December romance is a tricky topic to essay in song without sounding like, as Smash Hits would have put it in the 80s, Uncle Disgusting. (Let us pause and spend a moment of horrified silence recalling Chris de Burgh’s 1994 hit Blonde Hair, Blue Jeans as an example of the absolute worst that can happen.) But Minutes to Downtown pulls it off, perhaps because it focuses on Browne’s age (“close to the end”) rather than that of his partner. The whole thing is shot through with a sadness based in encroaching mortality.

The title track feels like a distant relation of 1974’s Before the Deluge, which also viewed nature as a terrifying, ultimately ungovernable force. And Browne has had plenty of practice at what used to be called “message songs” – including practice at getting them wrong. Perhaps haunted by the thought that not everyone who bought his 70s albums agreed with him about the Reagan era (“Among the human beings in their designer jeans, am I the only one who hears the screams?” he pondered on 1983’s Lawyers in Love) he developed a tendency to lyrically beat people over the head. The causes he supported were just, and you never doubted his sincerity, but you did occasionally wonder how much good lecturing people would do. That doesn’t happen here. Or at least not much: there’s a definite whiff of ham-fisted hectoring about Until Justice Is Real, but The Dreamers’ story of an illegal immigrant focusses on the small human details and is more moving and powerful for it. A Little Soon To Say is better yet, surveying Generation Z with a very realistic, genuinely touching cocktail of hope and parental concern that they might not be able to fix the mess they’ve inherited: “Beyond the sickness of our day and after what we’ve come to live with / I want to know if you’re OK.”

In the US, Browne is a longstanding part of the cultural landscape, the author of a string of platinum-selling albums, regularly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. In Britain, he remains more of a cult concern. He’s never had a Top 20 album here, his solitary hit single was a cover – a 1978 live version of the Zodiacs’ old doo-wop classic Stay – and his best-known songs are those sung by others: Take It Easy, the song he co-wrote with Glenn Frey for the Eagles and, at least since the release of The Royal Tenenbaums, Nico’s gorgeous, wintry version of These Days. Downhill from Everywhere isn’t the kind of album that is going to alter that imbalance. The music is slick and well-crafted – as you might expect, given the abundance of veteran LA sessioneers in the credits – rather than gasp-inducing. But then, at 72, Browne probably isn’t in the business of overturning expectations and fishing for new fans. You suspect that as long as his albums can justifying staying out over his due date, he’s happy. Downhill from Everywhere does.
• Downhill from Everywhere is released 23 July.

What Alexis listened to this week

Verna Lindt – Once (Gwenno’s Ritual Remix)
New single by longstanding purveyor of retro-chic, appealingly transformed into icy, glitchy, haunted house music.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Janet Jackson's classic albums reissued review | Alexis Petridis's album of the month
From 1986 to 1997, the youngest Jackson eclipsed her brother with albums produced by Jam and Lewis that still sound empowered, sexy and whip-smart

Alexis Petridis

25, Jul, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Adele: 30 review – the defining voice of heartbreak returns
While the topic of her divorce is all-consuming, the singer seems to be pushing gently at the boundaries of what people expect of her

Alexis Petridis

17, Nov, 2021 @1:09 PM

Article image
Lorde: Solar Power review – waking up from the nightmare of fame
Equipped with lovely melodies and a bombast-resistant sound, the New Zealander exchanges the spotlight for a sly reflection on true happiness

Alexis Petridis

19, Aug, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
FKA twigs: Magdalene review – stifled perfection from pop's poledancing swordfighter
Tahliah Barnett moves further into abstraction on this personal, painstaking and wildly adventurous record

Alexis Petridis

07, Nov, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Blackpink: The Album review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The K-pop group unleash an intense 24-minute bombardment of killer hooks and snappy detailing – but it’s a shame the lyrical topics are so narrow

Alexis Petridis

02, Oct, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe review – anxiety dreams from a true original | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Full of 21st-century disquiet, the singer-songwriter uses skits and skewed alt-rock to take aim at the spurious ‘wellness’ industry

Alexis Petridis

14, Mar, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Bad Bunny: X100PRE review – off-kilter debut from singles superpower | Alexis Petridis' album of the week
The vocalist’s surprise debut album reveals an artist joining the mainstream – and defying it with dizzying innovations

Alexis Petridis

03, Jan, 2019 @12:30 PM

Article image
Caribou: Suddenly review – perfectly imperfect pop
Dan Snaith’s project returns after five years away to confront grief and family, beautifully warping songs that are drenched in melody

Alexis Petridis

27, Feb, 2020 @2:31 PM

Article image
Porridge Radio: Every Bad review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The Brighton band’s second album is spiky, strange and uncompromisingly brilliant. Can they drag the avant garde into the mainstream?

Alexis Petridis

12, Mar, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Sturgill Simpson: Sound & Fury review – country's outlaw catches fire
Another big shift in direction for Simpson, with anime visuals, glam rock, disco and grunge ornamenting never-more-country lyrics: it’s extraordinary

Alexis Petridis

26, Sep, 2019 @11:00 AM