Jackson Browne sounds equally invigorated and self-assured on Downhill From Everywhere. Recalling his best work from the past in the most natural and unaffected ways, this fifteenth studio album of his extends a string of superb albums dating back to 2002’s The Naked Ride Home, all of which marks a return to form comparable to Bob Dylan’s in the late Nineties.
To that point, intentionally or not, a few notes in the beginning, middle and end of “Still Looking For Something” echo the solemnity of “Before The Deluge” from Late For The Sky. Following closely on that opener, the unmistakable sound of slide guitar on “My Cleveland Heart” is an even more overt evocation of the early period of Browne’s career when stringed-instrument wizard David Lindley’s work mirrored Jackson’s own voice. Here it’s the uncannily simpatico musicianship of Greg Leisz, arguably as a sympathetic accompanist as his predecessor, if not more so.
The front man’s accompanists are comparably empathetic. Participating in a collaborative effort on par with the California poet laureate’s other splendid LP’s from early in the 2000’s Time The Conqueror and Standing in the Breach, guitarist Leisz appears alongside fretboard partner Val McCallum, bassist Bob Glaub, keyboardist Jeff Young and drummer Mauricio Lewak (who also participate in the songwriting here too). Just as crucially, however, via Browne’s own production, the shifting rosters of personnel invariably forge the unity of a bonafide band, details of the various bonds readily audible on cuts such as “Minutes to Downtown” through the clarity of the recordings (mostly by Kevin Smith, subsequently mastered by Gavin Lurssen and Rueben Cohen).
The corps of participating players and singers bring a slight reggae lilt to “Love Is Love,” but it’s a bit overly-familiar as a songwriting trope Browne’s used more than once in the past (i.e., his cover of Little Steven’s “I Am A Patriot” in 1989). Still, the tuneful repetition of the refrain, as well as counterpoint background harmonies courtesy vocalists Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills, turn the cut comforting even as its sequencing effectively begins the album all over again: the second half of Downhill From Everywhere reaffirms how Jackson Browne has mastered the art of uniting issues personal and political, then turning the dual meaning(s) universal (albeit not without some difficulty, circa 1986’s Lives in the Balance).
These ten tracks total are a template for that process, writ large beyond the litany of cultural touchstones—the NRA, the laptop, etc–within the number after which this record’s named. Likewise, on “The Dreamer,” Browne delves into the human issues behind immigration but, instead of preaching or proselytizing, turns the acoustic-based guitar motifs into part of the story he’s telling. In a very real sense, this expert songwriter/musician is updating his expansive world view as expressed on his second album, 1973’s For Everyman: in “Until Justice Is Real,” for instance, he furthers that apt comparison by asking rhetorical questions and, as a measure of his inherent self-awareness, brings urgency to the issues with a casual but specific reference to The Pretender (‘…time like a fuse…burning shorter every day…’).
Always the most cautious of optimists, though, Jackson offers glimmers of faith in the future through the sly understatement on “A Little Soon to Say.” And even as the author speaks to our divisive times, he maintains a healthy sense of detachment by injecting some wry element(s) of humor into “A Song For Barcelona.” This eight and half-minute plus closing cut also allows the assembled musicians their most extended spotlights of the record and it’s not impossible to imagine the band’s focal point standing back to bask in the pleasure of what he’s hearing.
It’s fair to say most who listen to Downhill From Everywhere will experience a similar sensation—and more than just once.