On his first three albums, Jackson Browne established himself as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of his time, combining insightful and mature lyrics with subtle and affecting melodies. This reached its zenith on his 1974 work Late For The Sky, which I wrote about some time ago on here:
Late For The Sky
His 1976 album The Pretender perhaps acted as a kind of hinge in his career, between the time when most of the lyrical concerns were personal or introspective, and an age when the subject matter became more diverse and socially concerned.
The Pretender has a gloss and sheen which is largely absent from the first three releases. Indeed, I can imagine that in 1976 this might have come as quite a shock to some fans. The organic, acoustic feel has diminished, with one or two exceptions. The production sounds more "modern", although whether that is a good thing is open to debate! This may have been largely unavoidable, because of the recording technology and personnel being employed, I don't know. It could have been intentional, as representing a break with the past...
A few of the songs have arrangements which lack the depth and subtlety of earlier LPs, and this can leave them sounding a little clinical and soulless. The piano parts, though, sound very sprightly and luminous, though some people may prefer the more natural sonic charm of the past. This, and also the distinctively brittle and sparingly used guitar are possibly the hallmarks of the set, along with Jackson's more confident vocals.
It has often been remarked how more assured and technically "adept" the lead vocals are on The Pretender. In truth, this can be viewed as a double-edged sword. Certainly, the vocals are fuller, and there is more power there, but at times I find myself longing for the more fragile and pleading style of years passed.
Perhaps the most telling thing is the less prominent role of David Lindley in the arrangements.
Although people hoping for, or expecting, more of the Jackson Browne of 1972-74 may have been disappointed, it was probably time for him to move on anyway. By 1976, the singer-songwriter movement, such as it was, had begun to fragment. Some observers have commented on the danger of the material becoming samey and stale.
The first track, "The Fuse", sets the tone, and gives us some clues. The song has a brooding flavour which permeates much of the album. The lyrics are open to interpretation, but there are hints that the writer is looking forward, and more outward than inward.
"Your Bright Baby Blues" almost feels like a relic from old. This song appears to have been written a few years before, as I have seen footage of Jackson performing it with the Eagles circa 1974. The sound is a throwback to For Everyman, with rich instrumentation, including piano, organ and acoustic guitar. The slide guitar and harmony of Lowell George supply real character and bite, although in fairness there is plenty to hold the interest anyway, with JB in controlled and confident form on lead vocal. All these ingredients lift the song well above the ordinary.
The greater eclecticism of The Pretender is encapsulated by "Linda Paloma", with its overt Mexican/Latin stylings. A pleasant enough melody, with relatively undemanding lyrics, and a lightweight counterpoint to the more profound material.
By direct contrast, "Here Come Those Tears Again" is one of the centerpieces of this album. An intensely personal song, it is stylistically difficult to pin down, but its emotional impact is undeniable, with another fine vocal, Jackson stretching himself.
I know that "The Only Child" has been lauded in some quarters, but I have tended to regard it as a little bit weak and directionless, even though it contains some nice touches, notably David Lindley's violin. Overall, though this song to me smacks a little of going through the motions, almost "Jackson Browne by numbers".
"Daddy's Tune" has more substance to it, with a welcome change of atmosphere part-way through, which adds vibrancy and energy. The introduction of a brass section was certainly a novelty for a Jackson Browne record, at least in those days! This one is lyrically quite intriguing, too.
Another of the landmark tunes on The Pretender is "Sleeps Dark and Silent Gate". In its very early stages, this song looks like flirting dangerously with MOR, but the incisiveness and resonance of the lyrics elevate it comfortably above all that. In addition, it does not outstay its welcome, saying what it needs and wants to stay, before bowing out. There are some memorable and penetrating lines here, with which many of us will identify closely. Familiar Browne themes still very much present, here at least.
The title track, of course, is one of the artist's most famous compositions, although it is questionable whether those who hear it on the radio pay more than passing attention to its messages and observations. Lamenting the frustrated ideals of one era, and swinging a lamp on some new social trends, and those lurking on the horizon. Churlish I know, but for my own tastes the guitars, backing vocals and keyboards on the closing song are excessively "pretty", but they are indisputably also "radio-friendly".
I find it difficult to judge this album. The stronger songs are potent, cerebral and memorable, but there are some patchy moments too. Its diversity and its restlessness inevitably mean that for some it may lack the cohesiveness of other Browne albums. However, looking at things objectively, it is a fine album, and an intriguing window on the artist's life and career, the music scene, and indeed the wider world, circa 1976.