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Late For The Sky
Jackson Browne

Asylum 1017
Released: September 1974
Chart Peak: #14
Weeks Charted: 29
Certified Platinum: 5/16/89

Jackson BrowneLate for the Sky, Jackson Browne's third Asylum album, is his most mature, conceptually unified work to date. Its overriding theme: the exploration of romantic possibility in the shadow of the apocalypse. No contemporary male singer/songwriter has dealt so honestly and deeply with the vulnerability of romantic idealism and the pain of adjustment from youthful narcissism to adult survival. Late for the Sky is the autobiography of his young manhood.

The album's eight loosely constructed narratives rely for much of their impact upon stunning sections of aphoristic verse, whose central images, the antinomies of water and sand, reality and dreams, sky and road, inextricably connect them. Browne's melodic style, though limited, serves his ideas brilliantly. He generally avoids the plaintive harmonies of southern California rock ballads for a starker, more eloquent musical diction derived from Protestant hymns. Likewise his open-ended poetry achieves power from the nearly religious intensity that accumulates around the central motifs; its fervor is underscored by the sparest and hardest production to be found on any Browne album yet (Late for the Sky was produced by Browne with Al Schmitt), as well as by his impassioned, oracular singing style.

Jackson Browne - Late For The Sky
Original album advertising art.
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On side one, Browne tells bluntly about his personal conflict between fantasy and reality in erotic relationships, struggling with his quest for idyllic bliss. The title cut explores an affair at its nadir ("Looking hard into your eyes/There was nobody I'd ever known"), concluding with an image of the sky, the album's symbol for escape, salvation and death. "Fountain Of Sorrow" develops parallel themes of sex and nothingness, fantasy and realism, as Browne, looking at the photograph of a former lover, recalls: "When you see through love's illusion, their lies the danger/And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool/So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger." In the chorus, highly romanticized sexuality becomes a "fountain of sorrow, fountain of light." Later in the album the water images are developed into a larger metaphor for death and rebirth.

"Farther On" and "The Late Show" complete the first part of the song cycle. Locating the sources of Browne's exacerbated romaticism "in books and films and song," "a world of illulsion and fantasy," "Farther On" defines Browne's quest as a "citadel" in "a vision of paradise." Its desolate conclusion finds Browne alone and older, "with my maps and my faith in the distance, moving farther on." By "The Late Show," Browne is so absorbed in despair that if he "stumbled on someone real" he'd "never know." Midway in the song, however, he meets a lover and in an impulsive gesture they drive away from the past in the "early model Chevrolet" pictured on the album cover.

The second side of the album describes the precariousness of the journey, as Browne's sense of personal tragedy metamorphoses into a larger social apprehension. "The Road and the Sky," a jaunty rock song, reintroduces the water motif. "For A Dancer," which follows, is one of the album's two masterpieces, a meditation on death that harks back to "Song For Adam" on Browne's first album. But "For A Dancer" is not a lament; it calls for joyful procreation to combat metaphysical terror. Browne's graceful lyric, as fine as any he's written, finds its counterpart in music, an ethereal tango in which David Lindley's fiddle dances against Browne's vocal. A crisp little rock song, "Walking Slow," celebrates Browne's newfound domestic stability. "Before The Deluge," the album's summary cut, brings together in a comprehensive social context the themes of the rest of the album. The verses are linked by a moving secular prayer for music, shelter and spiritual sustenance: "Let creation reveal its secrets by and by/When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky." This chorus's final statement follows a verse so imagistically potent as to suggest literal prophecy:
And when the sand was gone
and the time arrived,
In the naked dawn
only a few survived.
And in attempts to understand a thing
so simple and huge,
Believed that they were meant to live
After the deluge.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 11-7-74.

Bonus Reviews!

The understated and possibly awesome talent of Jackson Browne came sneaking up on me in the form of his new album, Late for the Sky, on the Asylum label, and I swear I think it's telling me that real poetry doesn't hurt a bit. And I feel I'm weakening. It is an album too whole to be fairly analyzed piece by piece, even if I were willing to relent and rush my relationship with it; it has a consistency of flavor running through it -- a subtle spice or two beyond the flavor of Browne's song "I Thought I Was a Child" -- and it is so personal it almost demands headphone listening. It gets things said that a few songwriters besides Joni Mitchell have even tried to say. As Browne phrases it in one song, "No one ever talks about their feelings anyway/ Without dressing them in dreams and laughter./ I guess it's just too painful otherwise...."

The lyrics do not make it a "theme" album in the strict-constructionist sense of the term. One could listen only to the two songs that impressed me most -- "Fountain of Sorrow," which builds upon the image of a photograph and what it caught in a person the narrator loved, and the magnificently apocalyptic "Before the Deluge" -- and see no particular need for penning them off in the same album. But, taken as a whole, the thing sure does work as a whole. The melodies leave the impression of compactness and integration -- Browne uses certain characteristic chord progressions he refers to as naturally as some people light pipes and others play with their eyeglasses. And the overall drift of the words is toward a gentle but determined probing for self-understanding.

Browne's singing, never flashy, works better on this personal level than it did in, say, For Everyman, his album of excellent but diverse songs. His backing is an elusive but precise adaptation of rock and gentler styles, none of which ever sound quite this way behind anyone else. David Lindley's graceful electric guitar has a lot to do with it -- he seems to sense with nearly uncanny insight what Browne is trying to do -- and so does the way Browne sees to it that every instrument can be heard clearly at any given moment. I found only one lyric line in the whole album that I didn't like much, something in a stolen-Chevrolet metaphor about hot-wiring reality, and that may be only my prejudices wanting the car to be a BMW or Mercedes or something other than a Chevy. My own overall impression is that Jackson Browne has honestly confronted himself and managed to put a startling percentage of his most elusive impressions into words and music. Only one thing makes that possible: grace. There's nothing else quite like it.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 1/75.

Possibly the best thing this long time successful writer and, over the past few years, successful singer has come up with. Mixing in a few rock tunes with his always sensitive and skillfully handled ballads, Browne offers a bit of something for everyone. While the rock material is good, it is on the ballads that he excells. The lyrics are meaningful and come as close to poetry as any one else making music today, the music is well handled and the vocals improve with every album. Several cuts here that are possible single hits, but this album really transcends any categorization, which is one of the highest compliments that can he paid an artist. Best cuts: "Late For The Sky," "The Late Show," "For A Danger," "Before The Deluge," "The Road And The Sky."

- Billboard, 1974.

Browne reminds me of Nixon: no matter how hard I listen to his pronouncements -- important socialogically if nothing else, right? -- my mind begins to wander. They're getting longer, too: the eight songs here average over five minutes. I admit that the longest is also the best, an intricate extended metaphor called "Fountain of Sorrow." But his linguistic gentility is inappropriate, his millenarianism is self-indulgent, and only if he sang as good as Dylan Thomas I might change my mind. B-

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

On his third album, Jackson Browne returned to the themes of his debut record (love, loss, identity, apocalypse), and, amazingly, delved even deeper into them. "For A Dancer," a meditation on death like the first album's "Song For Adam," is a more eloquent eulogy; "Farther On" extends the "moving on" point of "Looking Into You"; "Before The Deluge" is a glimpse beyond the apocalypse evoked on "My Opening Farewell" and the second album's "For Everyman." If Browne had seemed to question everything in his first records, here he even questioned himself. "For me some words come easy, but I know that they don't mean that much," he sang on the opening track, "Late For The Sky," and added in "Farther On," "I'm not sure what I'm trying to say." Yet his seeming uncertainty and self-doubt reflected the size and complexity of the problems he was addressing in these songs, and few had ever explored such territory, much less mapped it so well. "The Late Show," the album's thematic center, doubted but ultimately affirmed the nature of relationships, while by the end, "After The Deluge," if "only a few survived," the human race continued nonetheless. It was a lot to put into a pop music album, but Browne stretched the limits of what could be found in what he called "the beauty of songs," just as Bob Dylan had a decade before. (In 1993, DCC Compact Classics licensed Late For The Sky form Elektra Entertainment and reissued it as a 24 karat gold campact disc [GZS-1036]. The DCC version, unlike the Asylum package, contained a lyric sheet.) * * * * *

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

Late for the Sky is a bit mopey, but it hangs together as Jackson Browne's strongest and most melodious album, with a couple of rockers thrown in to perk up the listeners. The best song, the fondly reflective "Fountain of Sorrow," is typical of Browne's ability to make personal experience seem universal. * * * *

- Gil Asakawa, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

On his dark third album, Browne explored, in the words of one Rolling Stone reviewer, the "romantic possibility in the shadow of the apocalypse." There's an undercurrent of dread on Late for the Sky, from "Before the Deluge" to "For a Dancer" -- not to mention a lot of obvious songwriting genius.

Late for the Sky was chosen as the 372nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Jackson Browne has the ability to sing about fantastic tangles of emotions and make it seem as if he's been there -- or, more impressively, is there still. His songs examine messes in progress, and relationships that unravel unexpectedly. The action might be limited, but Browne keeps close watch on the emotional temperature: By the end of one of his epics (like, say, "Before the Deluge" here) you may feel wrung out, like you've just lived through a two-hanky feature film.

And at the same time you're enriched, because Browne, the most introspective of the California singer-songwriters, has a way of drawing illumination (if not consolidation) out of painful circumstances. On the classic Late for the Sky, his third effort, the songs are the surprisingly unself-conscious thoughts of a lost seeker -- someone who's out there by himself, running down the big questions. This inquiry leads him into the minefields of memory ("Fountain of Sorrow," in which a photograph opens the floodgates) and extended voyeuristic character studies ("For a Dancer," perhaps the most beautiful song in Browne's book).

If you only get to hear one Browne song in your life, make it "The Late Show," which suggests that Browne, known primarily as a word guy, has a knack for the cinematic. The mood is all pent-up restlessness. Browne's protagonist is waiting in the car ("let's just say an early model Chevrolet"), trying to convince his lover that it's time to escape.

"You go and pack your sorrows," he tells her. "The trash man comes tomorrow/Leave it by the curb, and we'lljust pull away." At that culminating moment, where you'd expect a massive swell, the music becomes eerily placed. A piano plinks calmly. The next sound is a perfectly timed car door slamming, which kicks things into overdrive. Skies part. Motor revs. And guitarist David Lindley, Browne's secret weapon, serves up poignant weeping leads that send the couple riding off into the L.A. sunset, destination unknown.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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