The cover of Jackson Browne's new album "Standing in the Breach" tells of some of its preoccupations. A picture of conflict and destruction as a man and woman navigate burning buildings. Songs on the album like "Which Side" pronounces that the "battle lines are drawn" and are essentially protest anthems. They pose the perennial question of political choice while attacking "subsidies for billionaires/bailing out the banks/a monopoly on medicine and a sale on armoured tanks". It is possibly the most overtly political song Browne has written and just about damn's every aspect of American political culture. The title track is a beautiful Browne piano ballad although again its hard message is of one examining inequality and why "so many live in poverty/while others live as kings". Similar themes can be found on the poignant "Walls and Doors". Those who regret the more political turn that Jackson Browne has taken in his music going back to 1986's "Lives in the Balance" may not be entirely heartened by this new release. Indeed while Browne should be praised for his social consciousness and "telling it as it is", a whole album of tub-thumping rallying calls could have become wearisome. A final observation in this regard is that perhaps Browne makes one mistake in that many of the greatest songs carrying a political message are not overt but much more subtly sophisticated in message. Think of Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding", Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" or Dylan's "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall".
In any case Browne does vary his plays although it is ironic that one of the standout songs on this new album was composed in 1967. "The Birds of St Mark" has only appeared until now on his acoustic concerts. Browne wrote the song for Nico at the age of 18 and was inspired partly by his the admiration for Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn. Its chiming chords are clear testimony to that homage and recall the sounds of "Younger than Yesterday". Other songs like "Yeah Yeah" are cut from that rich vein of bittersweet Browne love songs with an infectious melody. The gentle acoustics of "Long Way Round" also impresses and almost updates the earlier themes of one of Browne's greatest songs "These Days". Echoes of the past are also found on "Leaving Winslow" a slice of old fashioned country rock with Browne's voice as strong as ever as he hops on board a rattling freight train to follow his dreams. Nonetheless it is the closer "Here" that stands out. Browne has constructed a classic love song tinged with regret and destined to be covered by all and sundry.
It has been six long years since Jackson Browne's last album and "Standing in the Breach" is a welcome return, albeit it comes nowhere close to reprising past glories such as "The Pretender" or "Late for the Sky". Browne's mix of the personal and political may not suit all tastes but there is enough here to largely satisfy Browne aficionados. Equally despite some of the reservations above, Browne's messages do address the concerns of those who want major artists to have something to say and not just languish in the increasingly expanding pool of vacuous celebrity.
Review by Red on Black