The Very Best of Don Henley arrived nearly 15 years after Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits. In the interim, he released exactly one record, 2000’s Inside Job, which was itself his first new album since 1989’s The End of the Innocence. That was his third album of the 1980s – which by Henley’s solo standards was his most workaholic decade – and his second major hit, following 1984’s Building the Perfect Beast.
There’s something shameless and corporate about a greatest-hits disc that copies an earlier incarnation of the same concept, which is what this one does. The Very Best, for its first ten tracks, is an exact replica of Actual Miles (also sharing a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”), and only differentiates itself by substituting three cuts from Inside Job for the two then-new songs on the earlier collection. It’s a more-than-fair trade: “For My Wedding” may be too sweet for some tastes, but it’s also the most understated thing here; “Everything Is Different Now” is comparable to the better ballads from The End of the Innocence; and “Taking You Home”, which was deservedly a hit, closes the album with a demonstration of Henley’s undiminished vocal ability. He doesn’t sound noticeably different than he did on the first Eagles album almost 40 years ago.
It doesn’t matter that these newer songs are all slickly produced, because everything else here is, too. (Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers appear on these songs in abundance, much like the Eagles did on their peers’ records in the ’70s.) This also isn’t a case of tacking on new songs that nobody wants to hear for the sake of comprehensiveness; the stuff from Inside Job holds its own with the older cuts. This means there isn’t the drop-off in listenability that often wrecks the end of a chronological compilation, when most feisty hitmakers settle into complacency, safety, and ultimately boredom. Even if the tracks from Inside Job are more maudlin than the earlier material, they aren’t by much, and they don’t seem insincere. His comparative latter-day softness is far less offensive than Eric Clapton’s, say, or Rod Stewart’s.
It’s a little shocking, though, to compare the contentedness of “Taking You Home” with the one-two punch that starts the record. “Dirty Laundry” and “The Boys of Summer” are arguably Henley’s best singles: lively, observant, hook-laden pop that ranks among the highlights of their era. The voyeurism, sensationalism, and vapidity decried in “Dirty Laundry” has, of course, not disappeared from the news media; it has, in fact, gotten much worse. “The Boys of Summer”, meanwhile, is as fine an evocation of changing seasons, changing lives and loves as any mainstream pop song, carried by ringing guitars and keyboard hooks. Think what you will of Henley, but these are masterpieces.
The rest of the album will be familiar if you were alive in the ’80s and within earshot of a radio: “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”, “The End of the Innocence”, “The Last Worthless Evening”, “New York Minute”, the wonderful ballad “The Heart of the Matter”. Some of these songs run on longer than they need to – all but four of them break the five-minute mark – but Henley was a master of making a six-minute song feel shorter than it was, except in the case of “Sunset Grill”, which has a rare instance of excessive instrumental overkill.
If you must have one and only one Don Henley disc in your collection, it should be this one. He made a couple of better-than-average albums, but all the highlights are here. Nothing essential is missing, and nothing really debatable is included. You might even be surprised at how well the majority of this music holds up.