Released in June 1980, Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album is notable for two reasons. Critics disliked it, as evidenced by Rolling Stone‘s Kit Rachlis calling it “probably the weakest record he’s ever made”; and, powered by the singles “Boulevard” and “That Girl Could Sing,” the platter spun its way to the top of the charts, becoming his first (and only) No. 1 LP.
It’s also notable within my life for another reason: It was the first current Jackson Browne LP that I purchased. As I’ve written before, my journey into music fandom began in earnest in the spring of 1978. Everything was new to me, even the old; I was, literally and figuratively, a kid in a candy store. I picked up the “Doctor My Eyes” 45 at some point that summer and followed it on occasion with a few of his LPs; I had a hierarchy of fallbacks when I went to record stores, and Jackson’s were usually third, fourth or fifth down the rung. By the time I picked up Running on Empty, which was released in late 1977, it was late 1979. (In some respects, in those days, he was singing about things that were beyond my years – but that was part of the appeal.)
In any event, I came home with Hold Out not long after hearing “Boulevard,” the first single, on either WMMR or WYSP.
“Down on the boulevard/they take it hard/they look at life with such disregard/they say it can’t be won/the way the game is run…” Those lyrics echoed life then and echo life now, some 40 years later. “The hearts are hard and the times are tough.” Amen.
“That Girl Could Sing” was another immediate favorite. Written for singer-songwriter/backup vocalist Valerie Carter, it’s an evocative portrait of a free spirit: “She was a friend to me when I needed one/Wasn’t for her I don’t know what i’d done/She gave me back something that was missing in me/She could of turned out to be almost anyone/Almost anyone/With the possible exception/Of who I wanted her to be…”
Those are tracks 3 and 4 on the LP; the opener, “Disco Apocalypse,” sets the stage for them quite nicely, detailing the mindless appeal of the era’s club scene; in some respects, it’s “The Pretender” for the disco age: “In the dawn the city seems to sigh/And the hungry hear their children cry/People watch the time go by/They do their jobs and live and die/And in their dreams they rise above/By strength, or hate, or luck, or love…”
Cowritten with David Lindley, “Call It a Loan” – about the fear that comes with falling in love – is another highlight.
The remainder of the album is as strong. Lyrically, sure, at times it teeters on the brink, especially on the song for Lowell George, “Of Missing Persons,” but – melodically and sonically speaking – it just sounds great. Warm. It could well have been recorded yesterday.
That said, I’d be lying if I said I wore out the album’s grooves at the time. In truth, I moved on to other albums, other songs. As one does. In the decades that followed, I’ve played Late for the Sky and Running on Empty many, many times – and, until a few months ago, Hold Out not once. A month or so ago, however, I found myself stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the 15/501 during my evening commute. “That Girl Could Sing” began circulating and percolating in my brain, and I remembered lying on the floor of my old bedroom and reading the lyrics on the record sleeve as Jackson sang them. There was and is something magical and mystical about the first listen, of having the music usher you elsewhere.
I’ve listened to the album quite a bit in the weeks since that ride home. As one does. I’m surprised at how well it’s aged and that, at their best, the lyrics are sage and true in detailing matters of the heart. Hell, I even like the closing “Hold On Hold Out,” which every critic I’ve read lambasts for its schmaltzy declaration of love.
The track list: