Downhill From Everywhere
This is Jackson Browne’s first album in six years and like many veteran musicians, he’s finding the studio conducive to songwriting. In other words, his songs often take new directions, once he begins to collaborate with bandmates, most of whom have cemented their chemistry with the iconic songwriter long ago. Certainly, Browne’s catalog touches on topical issues of the day and Downhill from Everywhere is no different. These songs were all written prior to the pandemic, although one would not necessarily discern that from listening. He takes on truth and justice, respect and dignity, issues of immigration, an urgent environmental plea captured in the title track, and an overall urgency balanced with optimism on our future fate. We hear such lines as “Time rolling away, time like a river, time like a train…Time like a fuse burning shorter every day.” One may quickly assume that this is an aging rock star contemplating mortality, but Browne is not the least bit self-centered. We’ve all seen many things we hold dear such as democracy, equality, clean water, clean air in jeopardy during these times.
No, it does not come across as preachy. Instead, he sings his lyrics in a straight-forward matter, hoping we’ll pay attention. He centers on characters in two remarkably standout and prescient songs. A Catholic priest carefully navigates the streets in the slums of Haiti while in the other a young Mexican woman has risked it all to get across the border. The indirect message is inclusion stated in the former “Love Is Love” to a quasi-Calypso beat and, in the latter, “The Dreamer.” The opener, one that he’s been kicking around for years, is an ode to freedom wherever we can find it, a unifying theme throughout the album.
His stellar band is comprised of longtime bandmates Greg Leisz (Dave Alvin, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams), Val McCallum (Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow), bassist Bob Glaub (Linda Ronstadt, CSNY), keyboardist Jeff Young (Sting, Shawn Colvin), and drummer Mauricia Lewak (Sugarland, Melissa Etheridge); many of whom collaborating in the songwriting.
You may have already heard the single, “My Cleveland Heart,” an imagining of replacing our malleable, oft undependable human heart with a an artificial, unbreakable one – “They never break/They don’t even beat/And they don’t ache/They just plug in and shine.” He touches on a relatable theme in “Minutes to Downtown” where ostensibly he is trapped in L.A., but the tune is about longing for another place or another kind of life while being drawn to the same locale through some inexplicable force that keeps you there for years on end. Among the many beautiful and empathetic moments on the album is the standout “Human Touch,” co-written with Stevie McEwan and Leslie Mendelson with whom he sings a duet in gorgeous harmony. She takes the lead on the first two verses but Browne’s entrance on the third verse is classic Browne in vocal delivery – “Everybody wants a holiday/Everybody wants to feel the sun/Get outside and run around”, backed brilliantly by the band but especially by Leisz’s pedal and lap steel. (There is no better player of either). This song first appeared in 5B, a documentary film about the first AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital.
Browne’s messages are often clever. Consider these lines in “The Dreamer” for the GOP-led anti-immigration mindset – “We don’t see half the people around us/But we see enemies who surround us…And the walls that we’ve built between us/Keep us prisoners of our fear.” The rocking title track is a treatise against our ridiculous overuse of plastic and the harmful effect it is having on the environment. “Until Justice Is Real” poses a series of existential questions that many of us have contemplated in the last year. To a start-stop beat this is the one with the lines about time getting away from us. Essentially, he is decrying apathy as the harmonies from the background vocalists and the twin guitars of McCallum and Waddy Wachtel spiced with Leisz’s lap steel raise the intensity.
Browne’s signature mellow side appears in “A Little Soon To Say,” where in a soothing way, he holds out hope for the next generation, as Young holds sway on the B3. The closing “A Song for Barcelona” is a collaborative write from all five of the core bandmates. The bilingual sung “A Song For Barcelona” closes on a rumba beat and a few appropriate Spanish touches but it seems a bit like an outlier here with its more commercial veneer. Yet, by this point Browne has made his various messages clear. He seems newly re-energized by grandfatherhood. With little to prove in his storied career, his songwriting mettle shines through many times over. The album is superbly engineered as it should with these top shelf musicians aboard. Browne is far from empty; his tank is full. It’s certainly easy on the ears but provocative too, as is standard with most Browne efforts.
- Jim Hynes
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