Jackson Browne, ‘Standing in the Breach’ – Album Review
For his first album in six years, Jackson Browne returns to a couple of places he's more than familiar with by now: political and personal landscapes. And like he's done somewhat in the past, but never to the extent in which he pursues it on 'Standing in the Breach,' Browne explores the terrain from a mutual standpoint. One affects the other, and there's no easy break when it comes to these dual matters of the heart.
Browne has lost little of his vocal warmth over the years. And his way with words and music are still on relatively strong ground, too. But anyone expecting a return to Browne's trio of mid-'70s masterpieces -- 'For Everyman,' 'Late for the Sky' and 'The Pretender' -- hasn't been paying attention for the past 30 or so years. Ever since Browne's songwriting took a turn away from the personal and toward the political, his albums have been an uneasy mix of these two sides.
On 'Standing in the Breach,' Browne's 14th album, the politics are in the center. But they stretch to the relationships surrounding it, so that the closing 'Here' isn't just about adapting to all the changes in the world; it's about making the best of the worst situations. If there's hope to be found here, it's in the acceptance that peace may just be a state of mind. And it's a fitting end to an album that wrestles with Wall Street, the environment, religion and gun culture, and doesn't really seem to provide much relief, let alone answers to the big questions.
"I don't know what to say about these days," he sings in 'The Long Way Around,' echoing one of his earliest triumphs. "It's a little hard keeping track of what's gone wrong ... / I can feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago." It's as self-reflective as Browne gets on 'Standing in the Breach,' a moment where the personal and the political directly intersect. And more than any other song on the album, it serves as its, and Browne's, worldview in 2014.
But the best song here is the oldest, and the one that breaks from the themes that circle the rest of the album: 'The Birds of St. Marks,' a ringing pop tune that Browne wrote back in 1967, when he was a struggling singer-songwriter with hopes of maybe selling it to the Byrds. The emotional weight that would get heavier and heavier throughout Browne's career, and which almost sank him more than once, is barely perceptible here, as the singer and his ace touring band revisit a far more innocent past.
Still, all this can't hide the fact that Browne was more engaging as a 25-year-old singer-songwriter reflecting on midlife problems than he is as a 65-year-old singer-songwriter still musing on them. 'Standing in the Breach' reflects the 40-plus years Browne has invested in his career. At this point, he's entitled to redefine the themes and musical ideologies of his past. And he still sounds committed to them, even if it's occasionally hard to pinpoint their, and his, general weariness.