Retrofit Guide: Jackson Browne Week Part III: "Late For the Sky"

“Late for the Sky” (1974) An unapologetic triumph, and the increased prominence of Lindley in the mix is the least of it. The music works perfectly — a crisper, yet still understated production; great playing all around — but these tunes would work just as well if they were performed solo, “Nebraska”-style, a lone voice and instrument captured on a simple reel-to-reel.

Here the man’s eyes are wide open, his pen tracing the most complex puzzles of life and living. The good ol’ emotional/intellectual dialect; the twirl between thinking and feeling, the urge for escape and the impulse toward social responsibilty.

Start with the title track, a simply-wrought piano ballad, paired with Lindley’s sizzling slide guitar and a series of verses describing romantic delusions of all sorts. No finger-pointing, no self-recriminations, no self-adoration. Merely a portrait of the mismatched: “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me,” he sings. “Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” The next song, “Fountain of Sorrow” steps up the rhythm (despite the forlorn-sounding title) finding some comfort in even the most misbegotten connections: “You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right/But you go on smiling, so clear and so bright. . .

“Farther On” and “The Late Show” project the lost little boy talk into the macro level, where the disconnects and hurts extend beyond cultural and social lines, into a kind of universal society of sad, lost lovers. “Nobody ever talks about their feelings anyway/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise.” And while anyone’s talk of ‘feelings’ might make me cringe, the words give way to Lindley’s wildly articulate slide guitar, and then a real Hollywood ending with pasts left at the corner, car doors slamming and motors revving: Let’s just say it’s an early model Chevrolet, he sings, Let’s just say it’s a warm and windy day. . . And off they go into the sunlight, born to be mellow.

An actual rocker, “The Road and the Sky” socks the album’s flip side into action, clearing the way for the musical elegy, “For a Dancer,” written for yet another lost friend. Which would seem to invite sentiment and tears, except for that this time the view stays on the survivors, all these healthy, happy young hippies, trying to come to terms with what even happens when people die. Do you weep for the loss, or celebrate what could be a spiritual ascendance? Not even the thinking man’s Lothario knows, and it’s this overarching confusion that gives the song its own transcendence: “Perhaps a better world is drawing near/Just as easily it could all disappear/along with whatever meaning you might have found.” Nothing pat about that; no easy answers to unspool nor cheap melancholy in which to wallow — just the simple comfort of music, a “joyful sound” to fill the darkness.

The climactic piece, “Before the Deluge” follows the “Everyman” model by flirting with religious imagery, this time an apocalyptic vision meant to illustrate a real-world environmental catastrophe. In its moment this paean to communal interdependence seemed like a kind of closure to the romantic/social disconnections described on the first side of the album. Let the music keep our spirits high! Let the buildings keep our children dry! Ah, but given three-plus decades of distance the political text sounds perfectly clear, pointing to the theme that would dominate the next, far less satisfying decade in the artist’s career. But for now, let creation reveal its secrets by and by!

Now at the height of his creative powers, Jackson Browne’s commercial arc would continue on its vertiginous path. Unfortunately, his next work would come in the wake of a personal disaster more shattering than any deluge he could imagine.