Jackson Browne looks and sounds a tad weathered, these days, what with his hair gray and his vocals occasionally frayed around the edges, but that’s okay. He’s not pretending to be anything but what he is, a 72-year-old, rock-oriented singer/songwriter. Back in the day, he was seen as older than his years, as his lyrics delved into matters that should have been beyond his ken; now, I’d argue, he’s younger than his age, though no less wise.
Downhill From Everywhere, released yesterday but recorded prior to the pandemic, resonates in ways similar to every Browne album since 1972. He surveys his heart and soul and, too, the world in which he lives, sharing observations and insights that, for many of us, echo our own. His knack for channeling fragments from the collective unconscious and making them whole remains as potent as ever.
The album opener, “Still Looking for Something,” presents his restless quest for something he can’t quite put into words. In some respects, it conjures “The Pretender” in that he’s still getting up and doing it again: “And I knew since I was little/the sharp edges of the world will whittle/your dreams down to shavings at your feet/Gonna do my best not to settle/I know it’s gonna test my mettle/to keep my options open, even so I’m hoping.”
“My Cleveland Heart,” written with Val McCallum, is a “Doctor My Eyes”-type tune in which heart surgery becomes a metaphor for overhauling one’s life. (The Cleveland Clinic, for those unaware, is one of the top centers for cardiac care in the U.S.) Lyrically, it delves beyond love and to larger life stuff: “I’ve been walking that broken line between/the way life is and the way it seems/I’ve been stranded on the endless straightaway/between the truth and my wildest dreams.”
“Minutes to Downtown” is a minor masterpiece about unexpected love and the ever-ticking hands of time, while “A Human Touch” is a song that stops time altogether. Written with Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwan for the documentary 5B, about the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital during the early 1980s, it’s a powerful piece. (In 2019, Jackson told Billboard that Mendelson and McEwan wrote the bulk of the song before he joined them to finish it.)
“Love Is Love,” written with David Belle, explores the universality of love during a visit to Haiti, where “hope makes life.” The uptempo title track, on the other hand, mixes Browne’s natural cynicism with the need to save the ocean, which is “the last stop for gravity.” I may be wrong, but when I saw him in 2014, he mentioned – as he sings here – “every second breath you take is coming from the sea.”
“The Dreamer” was written with John Eugene Rodriguez and features Los Cenzontles, a Mexican-American group; according to this Forbes article, Browne was introduced to them by Linda Ronstadt. It tells the story of DREAMers, aka undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents, through the eyes of a girl being deported to a country she barely remembers. “Until Justice Is Real,” which follows, asks “What is democracy? What is the deal?” and suggests “Putting your shoulder to the wheel/and staying with it until justice/until justice is real.” The former works well, while the latter is more a broadside set to song.
“A Little Soon to Say,” released last year, is as much a prayer for young activists as anything, with Jackson seeing himself in them (“I came for inspiration/I came looking for grace/And found my reflection/in every passing face”) while urging them to avoid his mistakes (“I took a couple of wrong turns/It only takes you one/To send you down a lifetime/of wondering what you might have done.”) The album ends with “A Song for Barcelona,” a love letter to the Spanish city that, he proclaims, gave him back his fire and appetite.
All in all, it’s a solid set that – like 2014’s Standing in the Breach – longtime fans should enjoy. At its best, especially “Minutes to Downtown” and “A Human Touch,” it conjures his classic ‘70s sides; at its worst, aka “Until Justice Is Real,” it’s eminently listenable.
The track listing: