JACKSON BROWNE'S fifth album, Running On Empty (Asylum 6E-113), revolved around a central symbol - The Road - and stops just short of running it into the ground. Browne's personal vision is on the road again as it has been so wistfully and frequently before.
Album, recorded on the road, as well as being about musicians on the road, presents various scenes from the seedier side of the road experience; one-night stands, cheap motels, nameless towns, faceless ladies and cocaine. The road is a methaphor for both life in general and the performer's life in particular.
In the title song, "Running on Empty," the road becomes a conveyor belt to nowhere and everywhere on which the lyric speaker is stuck like gum on a shoe. He is "running behind/You know I don't even know what I'm hoping to find Running into the sun but I'm running behind." The implication here is that Inspiration, the kind muse, doubles as a taskmaster and the creative artist, at times, has difficulty keeping up with himself.
Throughout the album Browne is eminently concerned with where he has been ("years gone by like so many summer fields") and where he is going ("running into the sun") with the here and now getting a bit shortchanged: "It's just another town along the way." An obsession with the past and the apocalyptic future has been a frequent theme - or if not theme, at least concern - for Browne in past songs, e.g. "Rock Me On The Water," "For Everyman" or "The Fuse". If anything, in this album his vision is less romantic, vague, apocalyptic; the poetry, more concrete, hard-edged, reality-centered. He is still concerned with beginnings, endings and the searches in between, but they find an objective correlative in the musician's life.
Despite all the hazards of being on the road - the loneliness, the dislocation, the sense of impermanence and culnerability - the experience still has its positive side, and that is what emerges in probably the best cut of the album. "The Load-Out." An upbeat tribute to the roadies and their tireless, devoted efforts as they "take the stage/Pack it up and tear it down/They're the first to come and last to leave/Working for that minimum wage," the song is rich with specific detail as it chronicles the process of moving a rock show from one town to the next.
Browne moves directly from "The Load-Out" into a version of Maurice Williams's 1960 hit, "Stay" in late '50s rock-and-roll style with David Lindley screeching falsetto agains Brownes bass a la The Coasters - "yeah-eah." The song is a spunky plea to the audience to "stay just a little bit longer/We want to play - just a little bit longer," and the album ends with this pleasant reversal and unexpected compliment to the listener. It is the rock-and-roll equivalent of the Russian practice of applauding a receptive audience.
Running On Empty represents a departure from the usual jackson Browne album of original material which relies on changes of pace and rhythm for variety. It is the inclusion of such songs as "Stay," Gary Davis's "Cocaine," Danny O'Keefe's "The Road," and Daniel Kortchmar's "Shaky Town" which make this such a successful album. Browne strikes a nice balance between his songs and those borowed from other artists. He has chosen wisely a group of songs which complement his personal milieu and at the same time resonate with his own idiom.
Brown is thus able to avoid a major flaw of previous albums, and that is a similarity of sound and predictability of treatment which tends to flatten his songs into two-dimensional tin-types of two or three first-rate songs.
Many of Browne's melodies turn on and repeat the interval of a sixth; his harmonies are frequently rendered in inverted fifths below the melody line, rather than the usual third above or below the line; and he frequently delays a resolution from subdominant to tonic sixth and then back to subdominant before the final chord. Add to these the tendency for his form to proceed by way of musical motifs rather than repeated stanzas, and the tendency of poetic phrases to be out of sync with musical phrases (i.e., the natural rhythm and semantic stresses of the words clash with the musical stress of rhythm and sustained notes) and you end up with some individualizing characteristics which in heavy doses can become a bit monotonous if not downright annoying, especially when his poetic content suffers from redundancy as well.
But the beauty of this album is that we are treated to some songs which are unmistakably Jackson Browne along with others that are not, yet which benefit from Browne's treatment of them - for example, his version of "Cocaine" which is as down-and-out-talking-blues-funky a version as I've ever heard.