Late For The Sky

Jackson Browne

Elektra, 1974

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There are the albums you love… and then there are the albums you’re supposed to love.

I’m supposed to love Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky—at least, according to the evidence:

1. I have a soft spot for sensitive singer-songwriters (see James Taylor, Carole King, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the list goes on.).
2. I was a fan of Browne’s pals the Eagles up until the band turned into an ego-driven greed machine.
3. I’m a born-and-raised Californian who invariably roots for the home team (Santana, the San Francisco Giants, etc., etc.).
4. I’ve seen Jackson Browne live and had a great time (solo acoustic around six years ago; he was terrific).
5. My guy Bruce Springsteen called this album “a masterpiece.”

Okay then: let’s do this.

Late For The Sky is Browne’s third album, co-produced by JB with the late, great Al Schmitt, who would go on to win a slew of Grammys working with acts like George Benson, Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and Ray Charles. It benefits from guest spots by notable pals including Don Henley, J.D. Souther and Dan Fogelberg, and the core band features the late, great master guitarist David Lindley, the terrific Jai Winding on keys, and the rock-solid Doug Haywood and Larry Zack on bass and drums. Finally, the album’s vibe is peak early ’70s LA singer-songwriter soft rock: gentle, burnished, melancholy and earnest.

On my first listen I only lasted four tracks.

Despite a handful of notable songs, there are no hits here, no familiar foundations upon which to construct an assessment. There are also—at least in those first four songs—no melodies that catch you off guard and burrow into your subconscious, no choruses that you find yourself humming in the shower a week later.

Not that this is a universal opinion. The opening title track was used in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 breakthrough film Taxi Driver. Cool. Second track “Fountain Of Sorrow” was covered by Joan Baez on her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust. Nice. But the two singles released from this album—“Fountain Of Sorrow” and “Walking Slow”—both failed to chart. Hmm.

Opener “Late For The Sky”—which Springsteen specifically raved about—features a characteristic JB arrangement of piano, organ and gently noodly guitar as he declares: “How long have I been dreaming I could make it right / If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might to be the one you need.” Um, ouch. And truthfully, “Late” is a hell of a lyric, incisive, perceptive and beautifully crafted. It just never really goes anywhere musically; it might actually have worked better solo acoustic, with all the focus on Browne’s words.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In contrast with its name, “Fountain Of Sorrow” is a more upbeat number, though there is a shadow of gloom falling across almost every song on this album; that was Browne’s vibe at the time. Lines like “And your perfect lover looks just like a perfect fool” and “There’s this loneliness springing up from your life” capture the fatalistic attitude that pervades.

By track three I was ready for something different, but no. “Farther On” is evocative, again deploying piano, harmony vocals, and woozy slide guitar (thanks David) to craft a distinct mood, but by the end all I could think was “Jackson, dude: cheer up.” “The Late Show” does nothing to alter that trajectory, another song about self-sabotaging (“I’ve been dreaming of the perfect love, holding it so far above”) that just makes you want to curl up on the sofa with a drink and stare into space. (It was about this time I remembered that one critic had called this album “a bit mopey”; nice use of understatement there.)

Thankfully, I came back around after a suitable interval to catch the second half of this eight-track album. Side two of the original vinyl opens with “The Road And The Sky,” a pumping rocker lit up by Lindley’s expressive slide playing. That’s just the music, of course; the song is of the “Let’s hit the road before Armageddon happens” variety (“Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead? / They're gonna wash this planet clean like the Bible said”). Still, JB and band somehow manage to make it sound like a good time.

Browne gets existential once again on the midtempo “For A Dancer,” speculating that “Perhaps a better world is drawing near / Just as easily it could all disappear / Along with whatever meaning you might have found.” It’s pretty enough—especially when Lindley embellishes its melody with fiddle—but once again dour in outlook. “Walking Slow” is the one genuinely playful number here, an upbeat street-party narrative that’s nonetheless shaded with angst (“I'm feeling good today / But if I die a little farther along / I'm trusting everyone to carry on”).

The album closes on a somber, philosophical note with “Before The Deluge,” a midtempo exploration of human hubris and the relentless power of nature. Its expansive, rather haunted lyric still feels like it boils down to a pair of couplets:

And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge

So, yeah: uplifting stuff.

Late For The Sky has a lot going for it—well-crafted lyrics, a talented supporting cast, warm production and a compelling voice at its center. It’s just so distinct and relentless in its mood—equal doses of longing and alienation—that it’s probably either going to knock you out (by matching and illuminating your own mood) or irritate you no end (by dragging you down when that’s not where you wanted to go). It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of middle ground with this album, until we get to the part where I’m required to give it a rating. I certainly didn’t love this, but I can also appreciate how and why a different listener might. So:

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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