The uber-troubadour. The archetypal sensitive singer/songwriter. The political firebrand and protest song torchbearer. In a career spanning over 40 years, Jackson Browne has been all these things and more. Standing in the Breach, Browne’s first collection of new material since 2008’s Time the Conqueror, has songs that touch all these bases, and even includes a composition that predates his first album. This is Jackson Browne in 2014: comfortable and secure enough with his art to revisit an old song, but not out of ideas yet. He’s still fighting, and still searching.
And what about that old song: “The Birds of St. Marks”? A Byrds-inspired tune that was written when the 18-year-old Browne was playing guitar for Nico and involved with her romantically, it’s the lead-off track and the one that’s getting the most attention. For Browne, the choice to record it is unusual as he’s mostly ignored his very early songs — the slew of widely bootlegged 1967 and 1971 unreleased demos, including a good 30-plus songs never put on album. Yet, solo tours over the last decade, where he took audience requests, seem to have given him an acceptance of some of the more obscure entries in his catalog (in fact, a piano version of “The Birds of St. Marks” was included on the live Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1).
He dips into the past in a different way on “Leaving Winslow”, a return to that town from “Take it Easy”, the big Eagles hit that Browne co-wrote. A desire to escape tugs at his sleeve, and he wants to disappear into the past to a simpler time when he was just standin’ on that corner in the small Arizona town. Emphasizing that longing for yesterday, the song is a ’70s-style Southern California country rock song, an obvious, but welcome echo of Browne’s original For Everyman version of “Take It Easy”.
These two songs are a reckoning of sorts with the past. After all, we have to know where we’ve come from, both personally and as a people, to see where we’re going. And where are we going? Nowhere good on our current path, at least in Browne’s worldview. Though his commitment to exposing injustice and political and corporate corruption is still strong, at times it’s almost like he’s trying to convince himself as much as us that it’s all worth it: “It’s hard to keep track of what’s gone wrong / The covenant unravels and the news just rolls along / I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago” (“The Long Way Around”). He’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet, though. The title song is a rallying cry, almost a pep talk, using an earthquake (perhaps the 2010 Haiti earthquake of the striking album cover photo) and its aftermath as a loose metaphor for the state of the world and the sometimes blind but necessary hope needed to improve things.
This “battle for the future” is a common theme, with the centerpiece “If I Could Be Anywhere” highlighting his realization that when it comes down to it, living fully in the present is the most meaningful thing we can do. Our current actions are the prime determinant of whatever happens down the road: “If I could be anywhere and change things / It would have to be now”.
He ends the album with “Here”, a quiet closer and an old-style Jackson Browne song that could be from any point in his career. An easy flowing, sad song of love lost built on a descending picked acoustic guitar line and colored with Greg Leisz’ lap steel guitar, it’s a mellow way to end an album that’s one of his most balanced, strongest works.