When one of the most upbeat songs on an album is entitled "Here Come Those Tears Again," obviously there's not a lot of happy material therein. That didn't stop The Pretender from taking Jackson Browne, poster boy of the introspective singer-songwriter movement, to a new level of popularity at No. 5 on Billboard's album chart. The Pretender appeared in November 1976. Eight months earlier, Browne's wife Phyllis had committed suicide. Small wonder that this is Browne's darkest, most personal album.
The menacing sound of the opening "The Fuse," with spine-chilling slide guitar licks by David Lindley, emphasizes such brooding thoughts as "Through every dead and living thing / Time runs like a fuse / And the fuse is burning" and "the fear of living for nothing strangles the will," and though Browne clings to hope, the long instrumental coda oozes pessimism. The eccentric love song "Your Bright Baby Blues" (the album's only charting single, making it to No. 23) includes an entire verse about drug abuse and revolves around images of escape. "Linda Paloma," complete with Mexican band, is quirky nostalgia.
"Here Come Those Tears Again" (with prominent and distinctive vocal harmonies by Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler) chronicles a crumbling relationship wherein the speaker feels that missing his lover is a sign of defeat. Phyllis left Jackson with their then two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ethan, and the back of the LP cover reprints Kenneth Rexroth's translation of Pablo Neruda's poem "Brown and Agile Child." "The Only Child" seems addressed to Ethan, apparently before Phyllis's suicide; it's one of the most pain-drenched bits of fatherly advice ever compiled, with Lindley's poignant fiddling the perfect complement. The following "Daddy's Tune" offers the opposite perspective, Browne's apology to his father for past rifts and recognition (with soul horns coming in) of the wisdom of his father's past statements, "so much clearer now."
But then comes an anguished cry of defeat, "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate," still Browne's most beautiful song with its opening string arrangement, dramatic pause before the band kicks in, and plaints such as "Never should have had to try so hard / To make a love work out, I guess / I don't know what love has got to do with happiness" and "Oh God, this is some shape I'm in / When the only thing that makes me cry / Is the kindness in my baby's eye."
The title track, the LP's other single (it didn't reach the Top 50), is filled with bitterness about the American Dream climaxing in the final verse's proclamation of ironic resignation, "I'm gonna be a happy idiot / And struggle for the legal tender ... / Though true love could have been a contender."
Browne's dissatisfaction with the conduct of modern society, which had started becoming clear on the previous album's "After the Deluge," eventually blossomed into a strong political vein in both his songwriting and public activism. On The Pretender, though, he is still the quintessential chronicler of inner turmoil. - Steve Holtje
This CD is available at iTunes. Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who earlier this year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.