Monday, December 27th, 2021
47 Years Later, Jackson Browne’s 1974 Masterwork is Added to the National Recording Registry
Late for the Sky First Came Out on September 13, 1974
Dec 27, 2021
By Austin Saalman
From the opening note of Jackson Browne’s third album, the fresh weight upon the narrow shoulders of the formerly easygoing, freedom seeking young songwriter becomes evident.
The wistfully restless, shaggy-headed youth present on 1972’s Jackson Browne had remained just that on the following year’s For Everyman, but he had also begun wrestling with life’s big questions. By the release of Late for the Sky on 13 September 1974, it began to sound as though some of those questions had since become a reality in his own life.
Now a father and mainstream artist of expanding prominence, Browne’s voice carried with it a sorrowful inflection largely undetectable in his previous work. His traditionally introspective lyrics now bore a soulful edge of mournful maturity, which, paired with the superior musicianship of his band and collaborative efforts with co-producer Al Schmitt, helped to render Late for the Sky not only the crowning achievement of his career, but also one of the most stirring portrayals of naked humanity yet put to tape.
Recorded for half the budget of For Everyman, a degree of minimalism is present on Late for the Sky, with David Lindley emerging as a prominent figure behind the wall of funerary sound. The remainder of Browne’s touring band picked up the slack, producing a fresh wash of exemplary Southern California pop that lingers just beneath the album’s sullen surface. Upon its release, Browne and his band received positive reception from critics and the album itself peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart.
While no track on Late for the Sky is wasted, several emerge as premier masterpieces. Opening with Lindley’s melancholic electric guitar against Browne’s piano, the title track begins the album on a somber note, unfolding into what could easily be one of the most anguished ballads of heartache and change ever written. Browne sounds exhausted, singing, “How long have I been sleeping?/How long have I been drifting alone through the night?,” painting a portrait of the pain of separation resulting from the inevitability of departure. A song recorded for a lonely man in an empty room at dusk, “Late for the Sky” became a perfect inclusion in 1976’s Taxi Driver, providing an audible backdrop for one of the film’s definitive scenes.
“Fountain of Sorrow,” the album’s nostalgic second single, quickly became a fan favorite, despite its failure to chart. At nearly seven minutes in length, this alleged ode to fellow Laurel Canyon luminary Joni Mitchell finds Browne revisiting bittersweet memories of a former flame through a recently uncovered collection of photographs. The photograph affecting him most is one that he himself snapped of this long lost lover in the moment that she turned to face him. The song’s lively piano melody stands in stark contrast to the downtempo mood of its predecessor, although Browne’s lyrics continue the album’s themes of heartache and disillusionment. The ultimate takeaway of “Fountain of Sorrow” may arrive early on in Browne’s warning to the listener, “When you see through love’s illusions, there lies the danger/And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool.”
A journey within itself, “Fountain of Sorrow” is one of Late for the Sky’s two epics, successfully encompassing many of the sentiments to come within a single, solid composition which stands as one of Browne’s finest achievements as both a songwriter and lyricist.
A wistful ode to those dreams which ultimately failed to materialize, “Farther On” finds Browne examining the ruins of his former desires, reflecting upon the reality of a world which, through the influence of “books, and films, and songs” of his lonesome youth, he had once so earnestly romanticized. “Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy,” Browne concludes, “in the place where the real world belongs.”
Set to one of the most forlorn melodies yet composed in his early career, “Farther On” is a portrait of innocence beginning its gradual fade to experience and responsibility. Once again, Lindley’s aching electric guitar accentuates the mellow disparity of Browne’s piano, as the latter sings, “And the angels are older/They know not to wait up for the sun/They look over my shoulder/At the maps and the drawings of the journey I’ve begun.” After a pause for Lindley’s brief solo, Browne speaks of “the vision of paradise contained in the light of the past,” before concluding of his angels, “I know they will find me/With my maps and my faith in the distance/Moving farther on.” This being, perhaps, his promise of perseverance as, per his new life, his dreams begin to shift, rather than simply fading away.
Easily the album’s unacknowledged artistic achievement, the breezy disposition of “The Late Show” masks its grim sentimentality, with Browne deducing early on, “Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing/‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care.” While still featuring prominent piano, “The Late Show” also sees Browne relying upon his acoustic guitar with Lindley’s electric licks serving to accentuate his mellow tune. Warm vocal harmonies of the band’s cohorts and friends, including usual suspects Don Henley and J.D. Souther, as well as guests Dan Fogelberg and Terry Reid, drift against a swelling wall of strings, courtesy of arranger David Campbell, creating the necessary nuance for this lonesome ballad of lonesome people. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the song’s conclusion, at which all else fades, save for Browne’s vocals, piano, and acoustic guitar, stating, “Look, it’s like you’re standing in a window of a house nobody lives in/And I’m sitting in a car across the way…” Browne then elaborates upon this fantasy of escape as the band chimes back in—“You go and pack your sorrow/The trash man comes tomorrow/Leave it at the curb and we’ll just roll away.” This, succeeded by the sound of two car doors slamming, followed by an engine roaring, forms one of the album’s most iconic moments. Iconic enough, at least, to receive a nod from Bruce Springsteen while inducting Browne into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 30 years later.
“The Late Show,” perhaps more than any other track, reflects the nature of the album’s cover art, designed by photographer Bob Seidemann, which features a 1970s American addition to Rene Magritte’s prominent Empire of Light succession, in which the scene is moved to Los Angeles suburb Windsor Square. An idling Chevrolet is placed near the curbside, while Magritte’s initial vision of day versus night, shadow versus light, remains in play. Even 47 years later, one may still find it difficult to imagine any other image as representative of Late for the Sky’s sound.
Following the sorrowful force of Side A, the upbeat anthem of individualism and defiance “The Road and the Sky” quickly alters the mood with its rowdy barroom pep. Here, Browne professes to the listener, “They told me I was gonna have to work for a living/But all I wanna do is ride.” A typical exploration of freedom and how one may seek it, as well as a final, fleeting glimpse of Browne’s carefree juvenile hijinks, the Chevrolet is also carried over from Side A, with Browne now claiming to have stolen it. A charming road anthem, as well as a reprieve from the album’s predominantly dower mood, “The Road and the Sky’s” guitar-heavy sound and lyrics such as, “I may be just around the corner from Heaven/Or a mile from Hell” could easily resemble those of fellow Asylum labelmates Eagles.
One of the most poignant meditations on mortality recorded by a major artist, “For a Dancer” is a stunning piano ballad within which both Browne’s newfound maturity and uncertainty are tenderly juxtaposed as he contemplates the death of a friend. The honesty in lines such as, “I don’t know what happens when people die/Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try/It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear/That I can’t sing/I can’t help but listening” reflect a wearier confession than those of 1972’s similarly-themed “Adam’s Song.” David Lindley’s droning fiddle adds an appropriately mournful air to the smoothness of Browne’s performance, culminating with the telling assurance, “In the end, there is one dance you’ll do alone.”
The album’s first single, the grimly empowered “Walking Slow,” is another uncharacteristically lively number, featuring straightforward lyrics of introspective alienation which see Browne revisiting his old neighborhood and feeling out of place. Although he is lonesome, he claims to be feeling well, declaring, “I got a thing or two to say before I walk on by/I’m feeling good today/But if I die a little farther along/I’m trusting everyone to carry on.” While feeling rather odd alongside the rest of the tracks, “Walking Slow” still functions as a jaunty, if not peculiar, relic of ’70s West Coast rock.
Closing track “Before the Deluge” crafts an epic from a generation’s collective loss of momentum and identity. Browne’s gargantuan statement ultimately mourns the dream that his generation could have been the one capable of anything, as prophesied in those pure and untouchable few years in the now distant ’60s. The ragtag band of refugees—dreamers and fools, as Browne describes them—are no longer waiting for a new beginning, but for the final conclusion. Of its arrival, Browne relates, “And when the sand was gone and the time arrived/In the naked dawn only a few survived.” Having expected their betrayal by humanity, Browne voiced the group’s surprise at their betrayal by the earth, the “magnitude of her fury in the final hours,” finally accepting the impending destruction as an ultimate act of nature. David Lindley returns with his fiddle, adding an atmospheric sense of mysticism to the vast portrait of defeat without surrender, summing up the album itself and offering a premonition of Browne’s determined creative direction to come.
While Browne’s subsequent releases would go on to score a number of hits, his sound shifting with each, Late for the Sky remains a high watermark in his career. Some would claim that he never again released as solid an album, its title turning up on a number of “greatest” lists, voted No. 372 of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
In 2021, Late for the Sky’s addition to the National Recording Registry was announced, placing it among the likes of Pet Sounds, Born to Run, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
While lacking the “iconic masterpiece” glow of its companions, Late for the Sky more than compensates in its graceful subtlety, an open door inviting all shades of dusk into the room, or an idling ’54 Bel Air parked outside, pulling out and gradually vanishing into the misty night, never to be glimpsed again.