I frowned immediately upon booting up Jackson Browne‘s latest LP (and first of studio material since 2008) Standing the Breach, since I thought I had heard the first track, “The Birds of St. Marks,” somewhere before. That’s because I had. Though I have yet to write about one of Jackson‘s classic albums, I’m quite a fan of his, as he’s one of my favorite songwriters. His body of work is pretty legendary, since not only did he pioneer the laid back Southern California sound of the 1970s, but he began as a very young songwriter in 1960s Greenwich Village, playing guitar on Nico’s debut LP Chelsea Girl and writing three songs on it. One of them was “These Days,” which he would record himself later once he was a recording artist in his own right; it appeared on his second album, 1973‘s For Everyman.
Track three on Standing in the Breach, “The Long Way Around,” serves as an update, with an identical melody to the fingerpicked live arrangement on 2005‘s Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 (and presumably other instances on tour over the years — the original studio version was strummed instead of picked and sounded a little different) but with different lyrics that touch on topics like Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (He mentions “these days” in the first line of the song, so his intentions to make “The Long Way Around” a 21st century update to “These Days” are made pretty plain.) Incidentally, the track that appears after “These Days” on Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 is none other than “The Birds of St. Marks,” which makes its studio version debut here on Standing in the Breach after appearing in concert for years.
The appearance of these two tracks is indicative of a much larger problem: Jackson‘s well has run dry. It happens to all artists eventually (at least for a period if he/she records constantly for decades), and Browne turned 66 two days after the release of Standing in the Breach, so he’s getting up there in age. At first, however, this isn’t noticeable — the album is nicely produced with a full, contemporary sound, so the first time through the album it comes across as pleasant and breezily enjoyable. With repeat listens, though, problems start to appear. All of the songs have a noticeably slow tempo, which becomes an issue when half of the album’s ten tracks top six minutes in length (and two more top five). The melodies aren’t pronounced sharply enough, either, so when the songs go on and on at such a slow pace, it starts to get a bit tedious. Jackson is too good a craftsman at this point in his career to allow the songs to dissolve into full-blown muzak, but after a few spins, it becomes apparent that there isn’t much there there, as they say.
And then there are the lyrics, which get pretty cringeworthy on some tracks towards the end (most notably “Walls and Doors,” “Which Side?,” and the title track). And I hate to talk about lyrics usually, since the lyrics typically have nothing to do with whether a song works or not, but given Browne‘s literate style, a discussion of at least some of his lyrics seems appropriate. Much of what is here is very direct, which can work if the subject matter is personal (and some of it is), but on Standing in the Breach‘s decidedly political tracks, Browne fails pretty miserably since there isn’t any subtlety to anything he says. An example (so you don’t have to take my word for it): “You try hard to believe that when you cast your vote it counts / But elections are won with money in ever larger amounts / Take the money out of politics and maybe we might see / This country turn back into something more like democracy” in “Which Side?” (one of the more enjoyable tracks, ironically).
Standing in the Breach may not be a complete misfire (it’s professional and well produced, so the level of craft is high), but not a single song can be called a complete success either, which is certainly problematic. As a result, there isn’t much to recommend — there just isn’t any exceptional material here (even if songs like “Here” and “If I Could Be Anywhere” are quite pleasant). And that’s too bad, since Jackson‘s gentle sensibility and soft, floaty voice are as appealing as they have ever been.