Retrofit Guide Special: Jackson Browne De-and-Reconstructed: "The Pretender"

Editor’s note: Despite promises to the contrary, this week-long special will take the rest of the week off, then resume on Monday. Also, the spelt bag described in the review of “Jackson Browne” is almost certainly some kind of water bag, as per the sharp eyes of California outdoorsman Michael “Dusty” Mooers, who provided something like half a dozen pieces of photographic evidence to prove his point. Way to fact-check, Dusty!

“THE PRETENDER” (1976): Produced by Jon Landau, fresh from co-producing “Born to Run” and already girding the for legal battle that would make him manager/producer/comptroller of the Bruce Springsteen empire, this album was designed and executed to catapult JB’s gold-tinted success to something closer to solid platinum. Now the spelt-flecked raw edges were smoothed down, stacked neatly into shimmery, airy mixes with far more sonic depth and clarity. This could have been disastrous (and indeed, the impulse toward shiny surfaces would eventually render JB’s albums all but hollow). But given the terrible straits the man fallen into (his wife Phyllis, also the mother of his young son, committed suicide during the early weeks of 1976) the neat production only clarifies the confusion and angst roiling inside.

Whether Phyllis’s suicide was a function of their relationship or in spite of it is not the stuff of public discussion. It took him nearly a decade to approach the subject in anything close to literal terms (1986’s “In the Shape of a Heart”). But the shock of the tragedy — the grief, the guilt, the emotional numbness finding form in reportorial observations and/or assertions of whattk and/or existential gloom — shadows the entire album. What results still seems striking, if not exactly the instant classic it seemed when it was new.

“The Fuse” leads off, taking us back to the empty highways that so often set the stage for JB’s albums. A technicolor re-envisioning of “Colors of the Sun” (check the similar chord progression in the verses), this time the sun-baked invocations of eternity take flight into affirmations: Whatever it is you might think you have/You have nothing to lose;  then layered voices describing a post-mortal world where “…there’s a part of me (that speaks to the heart of me)/that’s never far from me (though sometimes it’s hard to see)/ Alive in eternity/That nothing will kill.” The words of bereaved widower, you might say, and being Jackson Browne he projects his own resilience (real or imagined) to the world around him: Look out beyond the walls of Babylon, he shouts. I’m gonna be around/When the walls come tumbling down!

You can look at this in a variety of ways: JB is either veering toward easy affirmations, or else the narrator he’s created is still stumbling through the Kubler-Ross steps of grief.  Is the heart of the world empty (“long distance loneliness”) or buzzing with promise (“you are what you choose to be”)? Ultimately he leans toward the tumbling walls and immortal souls, swept into being with a neatly reversed chord pattern that trades a minor progression for a stirring major ascent and a chorus of background vocals.

“Your Bright Baby Blues” stays on the road, this time in the company of Lowell George, whose own distinctive slide guitar (like a truck shrieking down a steep, curvy road, according to one indelible description) and background harmony give the trip a cosmic cowboy shimmer. Fellow Little Feater Bill Payne provides the churchly organ, and the song floats above the road enroute to a realization that all these highway stories maybe promise more than they can ever deliver. “No matter where I am, I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away/From where I want to be,” JB admits, which anyone’s therapist would confirm in a heartbeat. The anti-drug appeals (“…when I looked down I was standing on my knees”) probably come a decade or so too early (just wait for “Running On Empty”), but realization is out there somewhere, and with Lowell pitching in with a high harmony the white boy highway blues feels as grounded in down-home smarts as it is in hopes and dreams.

The mariachi ballad “Linda Paloma” strikes me as musico-tourism, a tequila-laced trifle whose elegant arrangement (exotic instruments set into place by impish musical genius Van Dyke Parks) can’t quite hide the emptiness at its core. It mostly serves as a diversion enroute to the side-closing “Here Come Those Tears Again,” a kind of will-to-power breakup tune  whose bereft title and opening verse (“…just when I was gonna make it through another night/Without missing you…”) explode into powder via a sleek, white-boy gospel arrangement that (again) takes flight thanks to Craig Doerge’s surprisingly funky piano. You might expect a bleaker take from the recently widowed, but this is straight-up romantic busines: the singer is making a stand, casting his faithless, yet ambivalent ex from his life. “Some other time, baby,” he snaps, “When I’m strong and I’m feelin’ fine, maybe. . .” Be gone, woman. And don’t let the backbeat hit you on the ass.

So ends the album’s first side, and also the mood of stubborn resilience (or escapism, as per “Linda Paloma”) together. From here “The Pretender” stops denying its own dark heart, finally confronting the grief and confusion at its core. No wonder, then, that the next four songs answer life’s thorniest riddles and sorrows with the same not always beleaguered response: surrender.

“The Only Child” addresses JB’s young son, pictured at play on the beach, a golden-tressed cherub scampering naked through the surf. With JB alone at the piano the song begins gloomily, then perks up as the band carries him aloft. Changes unfold; wisdom comes and goes; nothing seems to fit. So the Eagles swoop in to emphasize the simple solution to it all: Care for your family. Be kind to others. Remember that cruelty meted out is often the clearest symptom of cruelty absorbed. “There are those who feel themselves exiled, on whom the fortune never smiled.…” The lonely searching for the lonely. And again, that simple, yet jarring given the context request: Take good care of your mother.

“Daddy’s Tune” turns the lens in the opposite direction, reaching back across the generational divide to heal a rift with his own father. Once again the tune starts as a piano/vocal solo, then snaps quickly into a horn-fired blast of California soul that is positively Boz Scaggsian. “Somewhere something went wrong/Or maybe we forgot the song,” JB belts to his father, urging the old man to “make room for my 45‘s along beside your 78‘s.’ A phrasing that flirts with corniness until you consider the internal language all musicians wield when they approach their heart of hearts  (e.g., “take a sad song and make it better,” and/or “I wanna be where the bands are…”). The music picks up even more steam, the horns get even more excited and JB delivers one last observation on his way off the shiny stage: “Nothing survives/But the way we live our lives!” It’s the upper-class white boy existentialist boogie. And while I’m not sure if the song was necessarily composed for such a white-hot production, it certainly does create some jarring contrasts.

Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate.” Perhaps JB’s most haunting ballad, and certainly the closest he comes to describing the descended psychic gloom. Tumbling piano chords follow a stately pattern as he describes the passage between waking and sleep as a preparation for the final descent we’ll all make, eventually. Now the darkness is
less restful than remorseful: “I found my love too late,” he admits, flashing back to the relationship that was far more troubled than even he imagined: “Never should have tried so hard to make a love work out/I don’t know what love has got to do with happiness. . .” Neatly composed with nary a note nor syllable out of place, “Sleep” circles back to the only comfort he has left: “Oh, God this is some shape I’m in/When the only thing that makes me cry is the kindness in my baby’s eye.” Death edges closer to us, but life — and meaning — persists in the children who take our place.

“The Pretender”: Tellingly, this is the first JB album to not flirt with holy transcendence in its final grooves. Instead, JB leaves us with his feet marching across the ground and his hands numb at his sides. He’s back in the suburbs of his youth, living the day-to-day life of the American salaryman, turning the wheels and feeling lulled by their chunking rhythm. He’ll live near the freeway; he’ll get up early and go to work; he’ll sleep at night and get up the next morning to do it all over again. And again. And again. And. . .well, you get the picture. The band plays brightly, but in a lockstep of its own. The guitar jangles gently, the piano plays a simple figure, the bass zooms upward to fill the silence. “I’m gonna be a happy idiot/And struggle for the legal tender,” JB pledges, his voice too dull-edged to be truly ironic. And what the hell – everyone does it. The policemen with their sirens; the junkmen with their fenders; the lovers feigning passion as yet another way to fill the time. It’s a tart portrait of society, but unlike, say, Billy Joel (whose simple folk are so often reduced to Davy-in-the-navy caricatures) JB sees himself right in the middle of the crowd. “We’ll fill in the missing colors in each others’ paint-by-numbers dreams,” he pledges, going on to describe nights of endless, if dismayingly chilly passion. Remember the sweet, sticky erotica he found with Bonnie Raitt on “The Times You’ve Come”? This ain’t it. Not even close. “We’re gonna put our dark glasses on/And we’ll make love until our strength is gone,” he croons. “And when the morning light comes streaming in/We’ll get up and do it again. Amen.

The life of an idiot, perhaps. But certainly not a happy one. And as the pop-friendly gloomfest “The Pretender” soared up the charts, JB prepared to hit the road again. And he had a grand scheme for another record he could make along the way.