When Jackson Browne made his debut a decade ago, it was salvation of sorts for the legions of English-major types who had felt abandoned when Bob Dylan "went country." In Browne, they found a replacement for what Dylan had been for them in the mid-'60s: a guide to their own feelings; a spiritual soul mate who looked inward, coined clever observersations about his findings, and put it all together in a tune that got you hummings. Eventually, Browne went beyond this "next-Dylan" tag, winnings fans through his increasingly hardrocking songs and his evocations of the tragic-comic nature of existence.
The hard-working craftsman -- who will be performing at the Merriweather Post Pavilion tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday -- never let his fans down. "Hold Out" (Aslyum 5E-511). Browne is not the sort to change abruptly; he prefers to build in complexity and style. In this new release, his first in almost three years, he manages to blend the excitment of his live record, "Running on Empty," with the thematic urgency of his previous studio releases. In this sense, it was wise of him to hold out until he got the record he wanted.
On the other hand, the album is a bit too calculated, too worked over, to be a classic. Bound by a unifying moral -- in the face of almost universal callousness and self-absorption, one must "hold out" for an unselfish love" -- he progresses song by song to a final resolution. On side one, the music is icily driven by Craig Doerge's electric keyboards, as Browne bemoans the "take it, hard" culture of the discos and boulevards. He admits that he has "traded love for glory." The music mellows on the second side, as David Lindley's haunting guitar lines dominate, and Browne sings of the death of a friend -- specifically the late Lowell George of Little Feat. (Has there ever been a Jackson Browne record where no one dies?) Finally, he gives his heart away -- in an embarrassingly mawkish spoken finale.
On balance, though, "Hold Out" is captivating, with some songs ("Disco Apocalypse," for one) built into stunning setpieces that feature exciting exchanges with backup singer Rosemary Butler. Unfortunately, Browne's voice just about stretches as far as it will reach here. Without the strong melodies he's capable of writing, we can't avoid his vocal inflexibility. Still, it's comforting to see that Browne is ambitious enough to test his limits.
For Browne's musical godfather, Bob Dylan, limits do not exist, least of all the traditional give-the-fans-what-they-want-loyalty. Following his own heart andhis own genius, Dylan has been unafraid to change content and image drastically. Almost always, his directions have been prophetic. So we are loathe to condemn him for his latest incarnation as a born-again gospel crusader.
"Saved!" (Columbia FC36553) is the New (Testament) Dylan's second try at recording. With last year's "Slow Train Coming" and a long tour under his Bible belt, Dylan seems more relaxed and confident in his reborn role on "Saved!" The Music Shoals-based musicians rock divinely, a wall of female vocalists emit unearthly moans and wails, and there are frequent touches of invention. On one song, an organ solo provides a saving souful grace; on another, Dylan's harmonica stops the show. Best of all, Dylan's singing is loose and fervent.
Not that this is rock 'n' roll. But neither is it gospel, though a song or two might fit in easily on Rex Humbard's TV show. Dylan as usual has coined his own genre, not only of gospel, but folk, rock, blues, country and Hebraic chants. It's too bad that the songs lack his characteristic sense of humor and lyrical agility. Some of his metaphors here are as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
There is at least one genuine pearl -- "Convenant Woman" -- with a fetching chorus and a benevolence that is a little less damning than the fire-and-brimstone sermons on the wrathful "Show Train."
Well, not yet, Bob. "Saved!" is valuable not so much as an instrument of Dylan's faith in the Lord, but our faith in Bob Dylan. Giving him the benefit of the doubt gives us the benefit of his brilliance. And if we hold out a little longer, maybe we'll see a resurrection of his lyrical mastery.