Jackson Browne’s songs have always conveyed a strong will to press ahead against the odds, but doing so with eyes wide open. Even as a teen, when he wrote the world-weary “These Days”, he was accepting a painful truth while concealing a steely yet unspoken resolve. Throughout his career, melancholy and reflection have mixed with resilience and determination in some of his most lasting work, from “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” to “I’m Alive”. Now, on Downhill From Everywhere, his first full album of new material since 2014’s Standing in the Breach, Browne stays in his – and our – comfort zone for much of the album while still finding new avenues to explore. To be sure, those new avenues never take us too far from the neighborhoods we’re used to. The houses are similar, although the trees and landscaping may appear a bit more exotic at times.
Any Jackson Browne fan will find much to love with the album’s opening sequence. “Still Looking For Something” acts as an apropos opener, setting the course for yet another journey of restless searching for that elusive love of his life, yet even if all he “finds is freedom, it’s all right”. The first single, “My Cleveland Heart” is inspired by a trip Browne took to the city in the song’s title and discovered where they make artificial hearts. The buoyant lap steel of the ubiquitous Greg Leisz propels the track into very familiar but still exciting territory. To paraphrase Lucy Van Pelt, of all the Jackson Browne songs on the new album, it’s the Jackson Brownest.
A few tracks on Downhill From Everywhere have appeared elsewhere, but in the case of “The Dreamer”, in a slightly different form. Originally released as a single in 2017 and featuring Los Cenzontles, a group he met through Linda Ronstadt, “The Dreamer” was co-written by Browne with Eugene Rodriguez and the legendary Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo. The version here retains the spirit of the earlier recording while slowing it slightly and adding a touch more Los Angeles singer-songwriter seasoning to the mix.
“A Human Touch” comes from the 2019 documentary 5B and is a duet with Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Leslie Mendelson. It deftly reminds us of the need for connection, especially considering the events of the past year and a half. Yet another, “Love Is Love”, originally appeared on the benefit album from Artists for Peace and Justice, Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit, Vol. 1, in 2020. Originally written in 2016 with David Belle, the song is another of Browne’s hope-and-resilience-in-the-face-of-unspeakable-obstacles songs. Its breezy melody and feather-light groove practically leap from the speakers with the joy and promise of a better day to come.
Browne’s social activism has not slowed in the slightest over the years, evidenced by the songs already mentioned, as well as the title track. “Downhill From Everywhere” is an indictment on us and basically how carelessly we’re polluting all of our oceans, powered by, as much of the album, the guitars of Leisz and Val McCallum, and helped along by the call-and-response vocals of Browne and keyboardist Jeff Young.
The album closes with two lengthy studies on human behavior. “A Little Too Soon to Say” perfectly encapsulates our thoughts and feelings as we cautiously re-enter society, attempting to return to a somewhat normal life. Meanwhile, the beautiful “A Song For Barcelona” takes us on yet another journey to a place whose streets, as Browne sings, “gave me refuge in my escape from rock and roll”.
Downhill From Everywhere shines a light on the darkened corners of our not-so better nature in places, but it also promises that if we hold on to each other, and love, it’ll be all right, even if it is a little too soon to say for certain.