Jackson Browne has looked virtually the same on every album cover he’s made since his 1971 debut, an amazing feat for a guy who turned 60 on October 8. That is, until his latest, Time the Conqueror. There he stares out at us through shades, an unmistakably gray/white beard dominating his still handsome countenance. Now, maybe this is just Jackson assuming a role for the album title’s sake (like DeNiro packin’ on the pounds for Raging Bull), but it still came as a shock to me. Of course it’s no surprise that he would approach the rapidly coming onset of his senior years with the same poetic sensitivity he’s brought to every subject he’s tackled: “In my mind the question: sunrise of sunset?/In my mind I’m certain: nothing’s certain yet… Time may heal all wounds/But time will steal you blind/Time the wheel, time the conqueror.” The past, present and future co-mingle throughout the album, but then he’s always had the long view infusing his work.
This is only Jackson’s third studio album since his last bona fide masterpiece, 1993’s I’m Alive, and I’m happy to say that this is nearly on that level. Musically it’s superb. He fronts a small, very tasteful band—just two guitars (Jackson and Mark Goldenberg), bass (Kevin McCormick), drums (Mauricio Lewak), keys (Jeff Young) and two fine backup singers (Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills)—and the sound is intimate and immediate: kudos to engineer/co-producer Paul Dieter and mixer Elliot Scheiner for making one of the best-sounding albums of the year. The arrangements are simple and uncluttered, yet every element feels right. It’s a strong batch of songs, as well—familiar yet fresh. Mixing the personal with the political, the glow of nostalgia with the grim realities of “world disorder,” the album covers a lot of ground over the course of about an hour. I tend to gravitate most towards his more introspective ruminations (the title track, “The Arms of the Night,” “Giving That Heaven Away”), though there is also undeniable power in his nearly 10-minute indictment of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (“Where Were You”) and “The Drums of War.” That said, Jackson occasionally lapses into simplistic sloganeering (“Why is impeachment not on the table? /We better stop them while we are able,” in “The Drums of War”), and the otherwise lovely “Going Down to Cuba” is marred with clunky lines, such as “Free people will insist on the freedom to travel” and “They make such continuous use of the verb ‘to resolve.’”
Oh, well, these are just minor quibbles about another deep and illuminating album by one of our most reliable singer-songwriters.
Must Play: “Time the Conqueror,” “Off of Wonderland”
Producers: Jackson Browne, Paul Dieter; engineers: Paul Dieter (tracking), Elliot Scheiner (mixing); Bil Lane (additional engineering); studio: Groove Masters (Santa Monica, Calif.); mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway Mastering (Portland, ME)