With Standing in the Breach, Jackson Browne makes a stunningly bold statement of purpose in a moment that might have been more reflective. After all, his very best music was the subject of a celebrated recent tribute album, something that might have left a lesser artist more humbled than ambitious. Not Browne. His first album of new songs since 2008, set for release on Browne’s own Inside Recordings in October, finds him working at peak creativity — as a writer, as a performer, as a bandmate.
Standing in the Breach is as layered as it is honest, as reflective as it is determined. Along the way, that takes Browne to places both reliably satisfying, and surprisingly new.
There’s “Yeah Yeah,” which belies its breezy title and chorus as Browne digs deep into a lover’s character study — without ever letting go of this song’s infectious hook. All of that is nicely balanced by “The Long Way Around,” as Browne traces a quieter, more personal shape around criticism of our unthankful modernity. Anyone who bought his first three or four albums will find themselves transported instantly back there.
But the restless Browne isn’t about to sit still. “Leaving Winslow,” at first, seems to follow that anger toward a sharper riff, but we find Browne instead hopping a rattling freight to follow his dreams. Already, the smart interplay between Greg Leisz and Val McCallum, as much as Browne’s pinpoint lyricism, has proven to be the engine that drives Standing in the Breach.
“It Could Be Anywhere” boasts a snappy, Beatlesque cadence, while “You Know the Night” pulls on a pair of dusty boots for an evening of two-stepping reminiscence. “Walls and Doors,” a meditation on the complexities of freedom, actually ends up giving Browne a chance to grow more introspective still. But then there’s “Which Side,” where Browne marches along in lyrical lockstep with Bob Dylan’s smart and too-often-overlooked “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”
The title track makes a clarion call for service, before “Here” arrives like a splash of 1970s-era Fleetwood Mac sunshine. Then there’s “The Birds of St. Marks,” an advance song of deeply personal beauty. Like “You Know the Night,” that track has been around for some time — but these songs, like Jackson Browne, sound born anew here.
Complex both emotionally and musically, Standing in the Breach is one of the most viscerally present albums in his storied career. Anyone of his vintage, of course, could perhaps be forgiven for looking backward. Browne is instead pushing himself ever forward — aware of the past, willing to reshape it and to build upon it, but ever forward.
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