People speak of love: the best of Jackson Browne

Revered by peers, guaranteed publishing income until the end of his days, Jackson Browne remains the least praised of his SoCal colleagues. Growing up in the eighties he was an inextricable part of album rock radio. I’m not a fan: the dolorous voice conveys sensitivity but not empathy. In much of his material he knows his pain, and that’s that; he limns melancholy up to the threshold of self-preservation, itself a recognition of his own talent for malevolence. “I don’t mean to be cruel, babe, but you’re lookin’ confused,” he sang in, naturally, a song praising “Your Bright Baby Blues.” His lyrics are often just OK when not precious. “But when you see through love’s illusions, there lies the danger,” he writes in “Fountain of Sorrow,” and I’m surprised this fusspot didn’t use “therein.” Yet I admire how he connected the dots between the Ford-generation hollow man of “The Pretender” and the rapacious careerist in “Lawyers in Love.”

I can’t deny those sturdy melodies, though, inspiring revelatory Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt covers, attention from noted empathist Glenn Frey, and lifelong devotion from John Darnielle. “In the Shape of a Heart,” whose structural curlicues mirror the title, breathes thanks to the gentleness with which the synth shimmers and guitar fills punctuate a man’s learning the fiction of his limits; it’s a triumph of arrangement (Waddy Wachtel and especially David Lindley did well by him). So is “For a Dancer,” its poignance drawn from a violin solo,  perfectly judged organ accompaniment, and Browne’s multi-tracked harmonies.Charting the movement of self-absorption toward knowledge powers his best material, even when he often confuses the latter for self-knowledge. This makes him no worse than many of us.

1. Running on Empty
2. Lawyers in Love
3. In the Shape of a Heart
4. The Pretender
5. Doctor My Eyes
6. For a Dancer
7. Somebody’s Baby
8. These Days
9. Jamaica Say You Will
10. Lives in the Balance
11. Boulevard
12. Late For the Sky
13. Our Lady of the Well
14. Here Comes Those Tears Again
15. I’m Alive
16. You Love the Thunder
17. Walking Slow
17. Rock Me on the Water
18. Fountain of Sorrow
19. I Am a Patriot
20. Under The Falling Sky

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