Wearing sunglasses and sporting a grey beard, Jackson Browne stares out like a soft rock Unabomber from the cover of his new album, “Time The Conqueror.” The name perhaps refers to the toll on his mind and body over 60 years.
“Time may heal all wounds, but time will steal you blind,” Browne sings on the title track leading off his 13th album of new material, the first since 2002’s “Naked Ride Home.”
But given the often too-literal content of “Time the Conqueror,” and his penchant for double meaning, it could also mean that age has compelled Browne to vanquish all urges to conceal his strong opinions, or for that matter, adorn them in any way.
“I’m gonna go down singing,” Browne intones on “Giving That Heaven Away,” as he grouses that it’s become his job “to show the whole world how to rebel.”
“Seems like the whole world’s at a fire sale,” he muses – and that’s during one of the happier songs on the record.
Browne is no stranger to mixing politics and music, but “Lives In The Balance” and “World in Motion,” his two most pointed albums prior to “Time the Conqueror,” were at least a little poetic, and punctuated with a few love songs.
This time around, he’s seething – and naming names.
On “The Drums of War,” he sounds more like a talk show guest than a songwriter. “Where are the courts now when we need them?” sings Browne. “Why is impeachment not on the table? We better stop them while we are able.”
“Where Were You,” a 10 minute indictment of the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and how it reflects on America’s national character, might be the angriest song anyone’s written since Neil Young rush-released “Living With War.”
The song, a percolating blues number tweaked with synthesizers and sampling, lays out the charges in a way that recalls Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre”:
“Where were you in the social order?
The Lower Nine or a hotel in the Quarter
Which side of the border between rich and poor?”
It’s all there – the horror in the Superdome, failed attempts to move from the convention center to higher ground, “the newborn and the elderly exposed to even more misery” and National Guard soldiers arriving five days late.
“Mainly they were used to keep the looting down,” laments Browne.
The song works, however, because it’s more than just a list of accusations. After a snarling reminder of President’s Bush fly-by photo op (“shaved face, rested eyes, looking down he circles twice/on his way home from his vacation”), Browne turns the camera around.
“Where were you,” he sings, “when you got the picture?”
His rage never quite ebbs, even during the easygoing, mojito and gardenia soaked “Going Down To Cuba.” He trips from visions of walking on a beach, “in one hand a Montecristo/in the other an ice cream cone,” to discussing the embargo, and reminding listeners that, whatever their faults, Cubans “do know what to do in a hurricane.”
It’s hard to believe that the same person who wrote “Late For the Sky” would include a line like “they make such continuous use of the verb ‘to resolve’” in a song, but there it is.
The record has a few nostalgic moments, including “Off Of Wonderland,” which name checks RFK and Martin Luther King, and recalls Browne’s days living in Laurel Canyon “with an unknown band” (presumably the Eagles), his ideals still intact. “Giving That Heaven Away” finds him “still looking around for that Sixties sound,” even though he knows “those days are gone.”
“Just Say Yeah” is a more typical Jackson Browne love song, with lines like “it’s hard to tell where the relating leaves off and where love begins,” but it’s a small oasis in an otherwise hard and strident effort.
Though it will no doubt speak well to fellow travelers, it’s doubtful that “Time The Conqueror” will win Jackson Browne many new fans.
Maybe time conquered his need for those as well.