Over the course of the fifty years since it came out (January 1972), Jackson Browne’s first album is not often mentioned in discussions of landmark debut albums. But it should be. On this collection of ten original songs (often referred to mistakenly as ‘Saturate Before Using’ based on its cover graphic), the California poet laureate fulfills both the promise and the expectations that arose prior to its release.
Accordingly, moments like the performance of “Song For Adam” sound completely personal. Yet upon repeated listenings, such instances take on more universal meanings. Therein lies Jackson Browne’s greatest gift as a composer, but he would also come to hone a remarkable feel for those moments in life that become pivotal in the very instant they occur. “My Opening Farewell,” for example, sounds so intimate, it’s as if time has frozen to allow the undercurrent of passion in play to flow freely from the author’s voice, then sink in with the listener.
Likewise, with its earthy undertow, “Under the Falling Sky” paints a vivid and thus readily-identifiable image of deep human connection. And, it’s all without cliché in composition, arrangement, or musicianship. Browne also reveals an equally nuanced eye for emotional detail on “Something Fine” and “A Child In These Hills.” Of course, that’s all in keeping with his sure grasp of the English language: the sophisticated intricacy of those virtues finds its counterpart in the production of the record by producer/ engineer Richard Sanford Orshoff.
To that end, the musicianship is as subtle and sensitive as the songs. The rhythm section of bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel is more felt than heard. Virtually as unobtrusive is Jesse Ed Davis’ finely-honed guitar work on “Doctor My Eyes” one of the most well-known cuts here, as well as the late Clarence White’s acoustic picking on “Jamaica Say You Will.” Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete Kleinow inserts suitably slinky lines into “Looking Into You,” while Browne’s own piano playing adds the proper solemnity to the proceedings: it echoes the somber delivery of his singing as do vocal harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash at various junctures.
Based on Jackson’s previous work on behalf of others, including Andy Warhol’s contemporary Nico and collaborations with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, anticipation grew to be quite high for Jackson Browne. And certainly, as one of the inaugural releases on David Geffen’s Asylum Records (also home to Joni Mitchell and the Eagles, among others), it received its due attention and then some. Partly as a result of that fanfare, its successor, For Everyman, was something of a disappointment, at least initially: the inclusion of “Take It Easy”–co-authored by Browne with the late Glenn Frey in one of his many such collaborations with that mega-successful band–rendered this sophomore LP somewhat overly familiar. Meanwhile, “Redneck Friend” was a homage to Browne’s former LA roommate Gregg Allman that seemed out of character in its high-spirited and (at least) slightly tongue-in-cheek tone.
But the alternately forlorn and resolute “These Days” is a quintessential piece of lucid introspection—which the aforementioned Southern rock icon himself would cover on his own solo debut Laid Back the next year—and this title song is actually a bridge to the topical material Jackson would favor in his middle period work (albeit often to its detriment at those points). And Jackson still performs “Our Lady of the Well” to great effect these days–see the 2021 Austin City Limits appearance—a tangible indication of the durability of his best work.
With his eponymous debut, Browne certainly set high standards of craft, not just for himself, but for the singer-songwriter genre as a whole. It’s an elevated level of excellence he wouldn’t maintain through all fifteen of his albums, but one to which he would return ascendant later in his career—nearly a decade after a flash of the old brilliance that was 1993’s I’m Alive— beginning with 2002’s The Naked Ride Home. Even so, with a half-century’s retrospective now, the initial long-player, like the artist who made it, has few if any equals.