As I mentioned in my last post Jackson Browne is probably my favorite singer/songwriter. I could not just listen to one of these songs, as I feel that they really are companion pieces (I don’t know if he thinks of them this way, but I do). So, I listened to Late For the Sky and Sky Blue and Black for this dicussion.
For those of you who need a crash course in Jackson Browne— here goes: I suppose early in his career Jackson would have been considered Folk. Then with the advent of The Eagles a new subcategory could be applied to them as well as to Jackson: California Rock. He has made forays into Arena Rock (see: Lawyers in Love; there was also a great article regarding this particular incarnation by Rolling Stone back in the ’80s, which, I think, was entitled “Jackson Browne wants to be a Rocker” — yes, the article is as tongue-in-cheek as the title might suggest… Jackson is pictured on the cover wearing a turquoise leather jacket) and he dabbled at least once in hip-hop/rap (Swear to God!…listen for yourself to Everywhere I Go from the album I’m Alive). Like many artists who have had the pleasure of the long career, Jackson has experimented here and there (for a flamenco-inspired sound give Linda Paloma a listen… hey, everyone makes a mistake once in a while).
Jackson has always been, on some level, political. At times moreso than at other times (and isn’t this true of everyone?), but his politics tend to run more toward environmental issues (Before the Deluge and The Fuse to name two examples) and political freedom (My Personal Revenge, I Am a Patriot — great cover of the Steven VanZandt song). To hear him at his most political and really pissed off (during the Reagan years… are you surprised?) listen to Lives in the Balance. What he does best and, quite possibly, better than anyone dead or alive, is the love song. Now, don’t get me wrong, Jackson is no balladeer. You won’t see some diva belting out Late for the Sky in the near future (though that might be interesting). But no one quite captures heartbreak better than Jackson Browne.
It is just not possible for me to separate these two songs. Late For the Sky and Sky Blue and Black are both lyrically poetic and musically spare. Almost twenty years separates the writing and recording of these two gems. Late For the Sky dates back to 1974; Sky Blue and Black to 1993. Just as Late for the Sky grabbed me as a pre-teen (who could not possibly have imagined for a minute what it was truly about, but knew this guy was onto something), the minute I heard Sky Blue and Black (late on a Sunday night driving home from work… I literally told myself to remember the moment) it worked its way into my psyche and has remained there ever since (apropos of nothing it is the only song I can, kind of, play on the piano). Of the two, I probably listen to Sky Blue and Black more frequently. I often think of it as the more mature Late For the Sky (though the idea that a guy in his early 20’s could write Late For the Sky is truly mind-boggling). What is intrinsically appealing to me about Sky Blue and Black is that this guy who maybe did not have a handle on what, exactly, love was to him he certainly recognized what it was not. Yet nearly two decades later he finds himself in his forties revisiting this same territory (the most memorable line from Sky Blue and Black to me is “I could never see how you doubted me/ When I’d let go of your hand”). This idea that he is both older and, one would hope, wiser but is still making the same mistakes with regard to love is both mystifying and heartwarming. And human.
While Late For the Sky is about the moment, the very moment, that you know for sure that a relationship is over (“Looking hard into your eyes/There was nobody I’d ever known/Such an empty surprise/To feel so alone”); Sky Blue and Black is about the regret that is concomitant with the end of any relationship. It is written after the moment and after a fair amount of soul-searching has taken place (“I hear the sound of the world where we played/And the far too simple beauty/Of the promises we made”). They share a feeling of inevitability; they share both sorrow and regret (lyrics he uses in another beautiful song, In the Shape Of a Heart).
They share the same musical feeling as well. Just a piano and a guitar at the beginning of Late For the Sky. By the time the song builds to its crescendo (where percussion is added) and we get to the guitar solo the instrument honestly sounds like it is weeping. The harmonies in the chorus truly soar. The musical timing is very similar in Sky Blue and Black. Right off the bat you know this will be no happy tune! It begins with a beautiful piano intro and the instruments are added slowly and effectively. Pay particular attention to the use of the flute and the percussion in this song.
Often I listen to Late for the Sky and then Sky Blue and Black and find them to be even more compelling when heard this way. Of course they can and do both easily stand alone. But, try it… you’ll see what I mean.
I feel like I exorcised a little of the “favorite” demon. I am sure I will have more to say about Jackson Browne in the future. For tomorrow I am thinking about listening to some Five for Fighting (though Radiohead’s Creep is calling my name once again).