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Saturate Before Using
Jackson Browne

Asylum 5051
Released: September 1971
Chart Peak: #53
Weeks Charted: 23
Certified Gold: 11/16/76

Jackson BrowneIt's not often that a single album is sufficient to place a new performer among the first rank of recording artists. Jackson Browne's long-awaited debut album chimes in its author with the resounding authority of an Astral Weeks, a Gasoline Alley, or an After the Gold Rush. Its awesome excellence causes one to wonder why, with Browne's reputation as an important songwriter established as far back as 1968, this album was so long in coming. Perhaps Browne acquired performing abilities worthy of his writing skill only after much hard work. Whatever the reason, Jackson Browne is more than worth the years it took to be hatched.

I mention the possibility that Browne has honed his performing skill mainly because of a vocal style that bears a certain resemblance to Van Morrison's. Browne may well have used Morrison as a model, because that singer's dynamic phrasing and syntax -- with those mid-phrase halts, work-packing and spreading, and drawn-out syllables -- are integral parts of Browne's style, too. The Morrison influence is most audible in "Rock Me on the Water" and "Under the Falling Sky," with their lilting, gospel-like movement (these two would make excellent singles) but it comes across in subtler ways in several other songs.

Jackson Browne - Saturate Before Using
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
But what might have seemed uncomfortably derivative in other hands becomes merely a sound starting point for Jackson; his artistry takes the Morrison elements to a place completely his own. For one thing, Browne's voice is uncolored except for a bluegrass-nasality; it's not a particularly powerful voice, either, but it's quite flexible. That straight-faced, country-boy sound -- somewhat akin to Clarence White's in tone -- lends his vocal style an endearing, innocent earnestness that enables Browne to deal with overtly romantic themes without ever coming across as self-conscious or precious.

The songs themselves reveal Browne as a classic romanticist; they're possessed of that same earnest intensity found in his voice, and their prevailing moods are so strong that singers as diverse as Tom Rush, Johnny Darrell, Nico, and Clarence White can sing them without significantly altering their tone or substance. Browne's songs, no matter who sings them, seem to have a life of their own. After hearing this LP, it's clear to me that no one has done them nearly as well as Jackson himself, and it's not likely that anyone will.

"Jamaica, Say You Will," the opening track, is an exquisite love song, and it perfectly embodies Browne's writing and performing approach. This narrative of the relationship between the singer and Jamaica, the daughter of a long-absent sailor, vividly confirms Richard Goldstein's 1968 perception that "Jackson writes with rocky seacoasts in his head."

A full-chorded grand piano gives the song a rolling, even motion and a certain austerity of mood. Browne plays his voice off the piano's restrained tone, soaring up from his own basically understated vocal in mid-verse and chorus. This underplaying of mood lights Jackson's simple but evocative images with a muted radiance that aurally captures the look of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

While the music sets the tone, Browne deftly tells the tale, his imagery charged with vivid suggestion. Jamaica and her lover share an idyllic, youthful romance in the high grass of a coastal village, but the singer feels a twinge of apprehension cut into his bliss: "Her father was a captain on the rolling seas,/She would stare across the water from the trees./The last time he was home, he held her on his knee/Told her next time they would sail together, just where they pleased..."

Inevitably, the time comes; the singer laments that one day they'd been hiding from the world together, and on the next, without warning, "They had brought her things down to the bay./What could I do?" And his callow plea in the first chorus to "Fill my empty hours" becomes a plea of teeth-gritting urgency in the third to "Fill my sails/And we will sail until our waters have run dry." But there's no chance of his fulfilling his dream, as he's known all along.

Much of the dramatic force of "Jamaica" derives from its gorgeous choruses. Each chorus builds tension by offsetting its lyrical meter from the movement of the music, so that the first part of each line is packed tightly and the second part is stretched out, as here, in the second chorus:

Jamaica
Sayyy yoou wi-illl
Help-me-find-a
Wayyy tooo fi-lll
My-lifeless-sails-and
Stayyy uhhhntil
My ships have found the sea.

Harmonies enter at the "Sayyy" section of each of the first three lines, accenting the rush of words that precedes them. All the tension built up by the struggle for balance between the lyrical and musical structures resolves itself gracefully in the even last line. Naturally, Browne's single-minded delivery drives the tension to even greater heights, and the song soars. It's as moving a love song as I've ever heard.

What's astounding about this record is that there are a half dozen tracks of "Jamaica"-beauty ("Song for Adam" and "From Silver Lake" are especially affecting), and none of the ten songs is any less than brilliant and lovely. Each has the immediacy of a touch, due in part to Jackson's first-person approach.

The music is as direct and fluid as the lyrical content. It's arranged and played with appropriate restraint by a dozen Los Angeles session favorites, among them Sneeky Pete, Craig Doerge (his piano playing is particularly sensitive), Lee Sklar, and Russ Kunkel. David Crosby's harmonies haven't sounded this real since he left the Byrds. And although you'll hear, aside from the standard acoustic guitar, piano, and bass, the sounds of electric guitar, organ, mouth harp, pedal steel, and viola, these instruments are subdued and spread carefully through the ten songs. No one get's in Jackson's way -- it's completely his album.

Jackson Browne's sensibility is romantic in the best sense of the term: his songs are capable of generating a highly charged, compelling atmosphere throughout, and -- just as important -- of sustaining that pitch in the listener's mind long after they've ended.

Don't miss it.

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 3/2/72.

Bonus Reviews!

Finally, the long awaited and much heralded first album from Jackson Browne and it is indeed a work of beauty and charm. He has built a richly deserved reputation as being one of the best new songwriters of the seventies and proves it by gifting us with ten captivatingly intriguing songs. Backed by such notables as Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar and David Crosby, his voice has a winsome quality.

- Billboard, 1972.

It has taken a long time for a whole album of Jackson Browne's music, actually sung and played by Jackson Browne, to be made and released. His songs are almost legendary; you've been hearing them, whether you know it or not, for a few years now, as played by The Byrds, Steve Noonan, Nico and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (he was an early member of NGDB, but never made a record with them).

On first hearing this record, watch yourself; you're likely to shrug it off as pseudo-Van Morrison or Elton John, but stop; listen closer. Pretend that Jackson is an old friend and slowly he will emerge. Oddly enough, he probably influenced these artists more than they he, and what similarities there are, are mostly in presentation, not content. Therein lies my only criticism. I was sure Jackson would give us a relatively pure record, but he did somehow find the need for all-star backup that includes Clarence White, Russ Kunkel, Jesse Davis, Sneaky Pete and David Crosby. As a result, Browne's voice sometimes gets lost and you have to strain to catch what he's saying. It is all, however, worth catching.

Jackson's songs are very personal, not embarrassingly so, but enough to make other singers think twice about performing them. "A Song For Adam" is a simple song about a friend's death; an often used theme, but rarely expressed in such spiritual terms. A great many of these songs deal with a spiritual search; no preaching, no conclusions, just searching. "Doctor My Eyes," "Looking Into You" and "From Silver Lake" also touch on this search.

"From Silver Lake" contains a perfect dual vocal track with Leah Kunkel and some stunning harmony by David Crosby. The harmony is used well throughout and reaches a high point in "Something Fine," a great, yet subdued song that leaves you with a very warm feeling. Jackson's lyrical ability is more obvious here:

"California's shaking like an angry child will
Who has asked for love and is unanswered still."

The song closes with a request of this Morrocco-bound girl friend that out to bring a smile to many people:

"While you're there, I was hoping
You would keep it in your mind
To send me just a taste
Of something fine."

The nature of this album is too open to merit any analytical trips. I urge you to get it and spend some time with it. It's not just background music; it will give you as much as you put into it.

- Jeff Walker, Phonograph Record, 4/72.

Not since Elton John weighed in has an artist made as distinctive a debut as this young California songsmith does with this LP. Over the past several years Browne has been steadily building a loyal coterie of fans -- mostly through his songs, which have been recorded by Tom Rush, Linda Ronstadt, etc. -- but also through occasional personal appearances. Now, with these ten songs, he bursts out into the open and serves notice that he will become one of the Seventies' brightest stars.

Though others have done him justice, Browne is his own best interpreter. He just eases back and lets the song come. He has the soul of a poet and the stance of a troubadour. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has not fallen victim to the trap of over-production -- the record has been crafted with care and purity. Browne is heard on both acoustic guitar and piano. Among his sidemen are James Taylor's drummer -- Russ Kunkel -- and Clarence White of the Byrds. David Crosby join in on harmonies.

The studio sessions must have been joyous occasions, because the finished product is a celebration in itself.

- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 4/72.

Prior to the release of this exceptional album, Jackson Browne was one of the best known unknowns in the music world. The writer of such beautiful songs as "Shadow Dream Song," "Colors Of The Sun," "These Days" and "Jamaica Say You Will," Jackson Browne has long been admired by such luminaries as Tom Rush, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As a matter of fact, Tom Rush was singing "Shadow Dream Song" around the same time that he was performing "Circle Song" by the then unknown Joni Mitchell, and like Ms. Mitchell, Jackson Browne is well on his way to major recognition as a performing artist.

The term sensitive has been overworked in recent years, but it's the perfect description of Jackson Browne's songs, vocal delivery and musical accompaniment. The production here is simple, and quite tasty, with excellent instrumental work from such Los Angeles session regulars as Russ Kunkel, Jim Gordon, and Sneaky Pete. David Crosby adds some vocal harmonies. Although Browne left most of his better known songs off this debut album, "Jamaica Say You Will," "Rock Me On The Water" and "From Silver Lake" will probably strike a familiar chord with many listeners. The latter song is a perfect example of Jackson Browne's tremendous talent and should serve notice that this could well be Jackson Browne's year.

- Jeff Samuels, Words & Music, 6/72.

Taken as a whole, this album is a southern California Catcher in the Rye. Jackson will undoubtedly continue to make more finely crafted records, but nothing as wide-eyed as his first.

- Cameron Crowe, Rolling Stone, 12/15/77.

Many people I like like Browne. Me, I don't dislike him. The voice is pleasant, present, and unpretentious, and when I listen assiduously I perceive lyrics crafted with as much intelligence and human decency as any reasonable person could expect. Unfortunately, only critical responsibility induces me to listen assiduously. It's not just the blandness of the music, but of the ideas as well, each reinforcing each other. Even the meticulously structured requiem "Song for Adam" interests me more for the quality of Browne's concern than for its philosophical conclusions. When Bob Dylan's good, I admire him as much as I do William Carlos Williams. I admire Jackson Browne as much as, oh, John Peale Bishop, whose name hasn't entered my mind since I was an English major. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

One of the better lyricists of the last thirty years of pop, Browne's finely crafted words and occasionally inspired melodies reflect a serious artist who has consistently attempted to grapple with the current state of the human condition. There is an unevenness in both the content and performance on the ten selections which comprise this debut release; but, at its best -- "A Song For Adam," "Doctor My Eyes," and "Rock Me on the Water" -- it represents the benchmark by which other Seventies singer/songwriters can be measured. The CD's sound is clean and surprisingly spacious, although little detail enhancement noticeable. B+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

One of the reasons that Jackson Browne's first album is among the most auspicious debuts in pop music history is that it doesn't sound like a debut. Although only 25, Browne had kicked around the music business for several years, writing and performing as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and as Nico's backup guitarist, among other gigs, while many artists recorded his material. So, if this doesn't sound like someone's first batch of songs, it's not. Browne had developed an unusual use of language, casual yet full of striking imagery, and a post-apocalyptic viewpoint to go with it. He sang with a calm certainty over spare, discretely placed backup -- piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, congas, violin, harmony vocals -- that highlighted the songs and always seemed about to disappear. In song after song, Browne described the world as a desert in need of moisture, and this wet/dry dichotomy carried over into much of the imagery. In "Doctor My Eyes," the album's most propulsive song and a Top 10 hit, he sang, "Doctor, my eyes/Cannot see the sky/Is this the prize/For having learned how not to cry?" If Browne's outlook was cautious, its expression was original. His conditional optimism seemed to reflect hard experience, and in the early '70s, the aftermath of the '60s, a lot of his listeners shared that perspective. Like any great artist, Browne articulated the tenor of his times. But the album has long since come to seem a timeless collection of reflective ballads touching on still-difficult subjects -- suicide (explicitly), depression and drug use (probably), spiritual uncertainty and desperate hope -- all in calm, reasoned tones, and all with an amazingly eloquent sense of language. Jackson Browne's greater triumph is that, having perfectly expressed its times, it transcended those times as well. (The album features a cover depicting Browne's face on a water bag -- an appropriate reference to its desert/water imagery -- containing the words "saturate before using." Inevitably, many people began to refer to the self-titled album by that phrase, and when it was released on CD, it became official -- both the disc and the jewel box read Saturate Before Using.) * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

This amazing debut shows the promise of what was to come for the talented singer-songwriter who would soon be a dominant force in pop radio and a mainstay of the California soft-rock scene. Only "Doctor My Eyes" charted, but the entire disc is an outstanding collection of sincere and personal songs. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

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