Review Summary: The Pretender rides again.
In 1971, two young musicians got together and completed a song together- a catchy little country-rock number that certainly had potential as a hit. From there, one took the song for his band, who became global stars not long after the song’s release. The other remained comparatively in the shadow of this- even, arguably, to this day- doing his own thing with a significantly smaller (yet significantly more devoted) fan base.
The song was "Take It Easy".
Those two young men were Glenn Lewis Frey and Clyde Jackson Browne.
Despite induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, several awards, critical appraisal of his expansive discography and even an Honorary Doctorate of Music, Jackson Browne has never been one to release smash hit records and sell out arenas like his one-time songwriting partner Frey’s band, the Eagles. Regardless, this has never seemingly phased him as an artist- and why should it? Browne’s consistency, beyond remarkable lyricism and aptitude on both piano and guitar surpasses the bulk of what Frey and co. have presented over the years, as well as basically every other one of his contemporaries.
Now, after six years’ breathing space from a studio album (2002’s The Naked Ride Home
), as well as a simply stunning, lengthy acoustic tour (documented by the fantastic Solo Acoustic
volumes 1 and 2), the fire is alight for Jackson Browne once again. Once again, unlike his contemporaries, Jackson’s new record is more than simply another excuse to tour- this is a genuine artistic statement from Browne as he analyses just what’s been going on in the six years since he last recorded.
When it comes to Jackson Browne as a lyricist, two themes tend to recur as the subject matter- discussing the current world around him and reflecting or reminiscing of the world gone by. These ideals are continued on in Time the Conqueror
, addressing a wide variety of topics that centralise around musings and observations on what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what needs changing. Of course, at 61, Browne’s political vigour is not as passionately fuelled as it may have been a decade or two ago. This does not stop a bulk of the song, however, from being heavily loaded with Browne’s anti-government agenda.
The White House is called out and interrogated- “Who is the enemy to peace and freedom?/Where are the courts now when we need them?”, Browne asks “The Drums of War”, a tight-knit Neil Young-esque rocker with a solid backbeat and a well-sung harmonic chorus. Not long after, the ten-minute “Where Were You?” doubles as both a groovy free-form jam and Browne’s straight-faced addressing of the government reaction to Hurricane Katrina- an issue that has inspired many different songs, from Linkin Park to Chris Walla. Unlike many political songs, Browne chooses to evade metaphor or roundabout accusation- this is direct, honest analysis of the events surrounding the tragedy. Whilst some may criticise for not addressing the subject matter in a more creative or even subtle way, what Jackson is doing here is simply calling it as he sees it.
Of course, not everything here is as grim as Browne’s politics. “Going Down to Cuba” is a relaxed approach to self-rediscovery and escaping the global lifestyle, “Off of Wonderland” is classic California dreaming and “Just Say Yeah” is another underdog love story that Browne is particularly well-versed in writing. His vocals are particularly clear and surprisingly strong throughout. This is especially the case when he is backed by Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, two backing vocalists who add soul and depth to songs such as the title track and the closing “Far From the Arms of Hunger”. The harmony and musicianship that make up the songs of Time the Conqueror
are certainly the work of a man with experience and finesse in the area, with warm organ and steel-string picking creating a distinct poignancy and sincerity surrounding Browne’s poetry.
In this light, another aspect of the album that must be pointed out is how good the music actually sounds
. Considering that the industry is currently in a “loudness war”, along with the recent Death Magnetic
controversy, it’s certainly a relief to hear current music with crystal clear mastering that emphasises everything that is going on in the songs in exactly the right way.
In case you were wondering, the answer is no- there is no real progression here from what Jackson has been doing for the past thirty odd years. Ultimately, however, there is no real need for anything drastic, when he is already making music this good. Time the Conqueror
is exactly the kind of album that Jackson Browne does best.