The One after the Big One: Jackson Browne, RUNNING ON EMPTY
Jackson Browne’s 1976 album THE PRETENDER was his breakthrough, an album on which he took the potent forces marshalled through his first three records — literate lyrics of alienation and despair, sung by one of the great voices of the ‘70s singer/songwriter era, backed by the cream of the studio musicians then available — and reduced them to 35 minutes of engaging earnestness. It was also his biggest commercial success to date, taking him to the Top Five of the album chart and into the hearts of mainstream listeners.
Browne followed THE PRETENDER with RUNNING ON EMPTY — if not the first concept album about a band on the road, then certainly one of the finest. Recorded onstage, in hotel rooms and on tour buses, the album offers a peek into the idle moments musicians experience when not in front of audiences (sometimes to comic effect), as well as mining the wanderlust of the traveling musician for answers to some of the Big Questions in life — an area in which Browne excelled.
The former concern is chronicled in songs that range from the illicit pleasures and lasting damage described in “Cocaine,” to the dawdling and glad-handing in the cover of Danny O’Keefe’s “The Road,” to the humorous coulda/shoulda-been story in “Rosie,” which ends with the singer alone in his hotel room, engaging in a one night stand … with himself.
It’s all fun and games until the real world creeps back in — when the traveling musician must deal with his relationships back home, and when he can’t muster what he needs to do that, he runs. “Love Needs a Heart,” one of Browne’s finest ballads, finds the singer’s regret transforming into motion (“Leaving behind the life that we’d begun / I split myself in two”) and taking off, but no length of time on the road enables him to escape — his lover’s pain elicits a sadness he can’t outrun.
On THE PRETENDER’s title track, Browne sang of being “aware of the time going by,” noting, “They say in the end it's the wink of an eye.” He’s still pondering this on RUNNING ON EMPTY’s title tune. He wonders where the time has gone, and what he’s done with himself, how the years have changed him. “I look around for the friends that I used to turn to pull me through,” he sings. “Looking into their eyes I see them running too.” What they’re all running from, he does not know, doesn’t understand. Perhaps he’s yearning for home; perhaps there’s no home to go home to, literally or figuratively, and all he can do is keep running.
RUNNING ON EMPTY’s questions and stories and rock ‘n’ roll connected with those listeners going through similar issues, and in turn eclipsed THE PRETENDER’s commercial successes, with several of its songs — notably “Running on Empty” and the brilliant medley of Browne’s “The Load Out” and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay” — played on the radio to this day. It’s certainly one of Browne’s finest albums, one worth returning to time and again.
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