Jackson Browne ‘Running on Empty’ Album Review

Jackson Browne 'Running on Empty' Album Review

Over the course of a career spanning more than half a century, Jackson Browne has established himself as the consummate nuts-and-bolts singer/songwriter. Equal parts insightful, reflective, and commercially viable, Jackson Browne’s output has toed the line between unflinching analysis of self and marketplace accessibility in an impressive fashion. This was evident even when Jackson Browne opted to disregard the established blueprint for constructing an album with 1977’s Running on Empty.

Released half a decade into Jackson Browne’s career as a recording artist, Running on Empty would go on to become the songwriter’s most commercially successful offering. Despite this, the means by which the record was assembled could be described at the very least as unconventional.

The premise of the LP, as it were, is the offering of a glimpse at life on the road for touring musicians and the rigors – both personal and professional – that go hand in hand with such transient lifestyles. The track list itself is indicative of the subject matter to be found throughout Running on Empty before the LP even leaves its sleeve.

“Running on Empty;” “The Road;” “Shaky Town;” “Nothing but Time;” “The Load-Out;” It doesn’t take the most astute of observers to piece together what kind of conceptual experience they’re in for based on such track titles. But in case there was any confusion, the sprawling highway stretching out into eternity positioned as the key element of the album’s artwork makes it abundantly clear that this a record made about, on, and for the road.

In keeping with the central theme, the album itself was recorded on tour during the fall of 1977, with tracks being cut everywhere from live on stage, in pre and post-gig hotel rooms, backstage at shows, and even on Jackson Browne’s tour bus.

The casually dejected manner in which Jackson Browne opens the second verse of “The Road,” indicates that the revelations being presented throughout are intended to serve as more of a cautionary tale than any sort of cliche glorification of a rockstar lifestyle.

“Coffee in the morning, cocaine afternoons; You talk about the weather, and you grin about the rooms,” the singer seems to lament, painting lyrical pictures of highways and dancehalls, gamblers in the neon, long distance phone calls, and blues in old hotel rooms. The darkness and light are embraced as inseparable, with neither quite willing to give up the high ground in a perpetual battle bound to wear down the soul caught in the middle until it’s as dull as the tires beneath the ever-resilient big rigs which make up the conceptual basis for Side 2 opener “Shaky Town.”

The tune seems to shift focus from the perspective of the traveling musician to that of the lone truck driver, if only to demonstrate the abundance of parallels between the two.

“I’m just here tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll be gone,” Jackson Browne croons, before launching into the chorus of what is one of the livelier tunes to be found on the album. The liner notes of the album disclose precisely when and where its tracks were recorded. “Shaky Town,” for example, was purportedly cut on August 18, 1977, inside room 124 of the Edwardsville, Illinois Holiday Inn. Notably, “Shaky Town” is one of only three songs included on Running on Empty – along with “The Road” and “Stay” – on which Jackson Browne has no writing credit. Instead, the song is credited to guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who also sang harmony on the track.

The opening number, title track, and perhaps Jackson Browne’s most well-known single, “Running on Empty” gets things off to a lively start with its extended intro and warm piano chords atop a rolling beat. The song itself serves almost as an anthem for adulthood, detailing the fleeting nature of life’s pleasures and the perpetual struggle to tend to the litany of things that demand a person’s attention during their limited time on the planet.

“Got to do what you can just to keep your love alive, trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive,” begins the song’s second verse, eloquently approximating the unending barrage of stressors seeking to evoke the worst in a person, when the things that truly matter the most – family, friends, support – are often worlds away from the pressures of what could ultimately be considered life’s trivialities.

The affair as a whole isn’t quite so heavy handed, however, as elsewhere throughout Running on Empty one can almost hear Jackson Browne cracking a sly smile while delivering tongue-in-cheek nods to the absurdity of his own situation in cuts such as “Cocaine” and “Nothing but Time.” The former, credited to bluesman Reverend Gary Davis and featuring additional lyrics by Jackson Browne and his running buddy from the Eagles, Glenn Frey, was recorded in the same room and hotel as was “Shaky Town,” albeit a day prior.

“Nothing but Time” reads more like a journal entry than a piece of poetry, and seems to function the articulation of a moment in time, a sonic snapshot. The moment in time in question? One which took place aboard a Continental Silver Eagle tour bus on September 8, 1977, en route to a show in New Jersey. The scene is further accentuated by the distinct sound of the bus’s engine throughout the song, and the bridge section is said to contain clear audio of the vehicle’s downshift and acceleration.

Running on Empty is rounded out with a handful of impactful love songs, including “Love Needs a Heart” which was recorded live at Universal City, California, and notably features a writing credit from Lowell George of Little Feat. “Rosie” is the first of the album’s cuts to bring emphasis specifically to romantic relationships but retains the record’s focus on road life with references to gig load-ins, gear trucks, mixing stage sound, and experiencing disappointment based on the nature of one’s lifestyle.

“You Love the Thunder” carries a theme which could be interpreted as more universal, but also as keeping with the theme of the album overall. Jackson Browne, the track’s sole writer, comes through with a number of highly effective metaphors for the complexities of infatuation with another person with their own dreams, drives, and desires.

“You love the thunder, and you love the rain. You know your hunger like you know your name. I know you wonder how you ever came to be a woman in love with a man in search of the flame,” Jackson Browne emotes as though to signify some understanding of his partner’s plight while also maintaining that he cannot and will not be dissuaded from his quest. One could argue that the quest in question is that of making and performing music, as the conceptual continuity would indicate. But on a more abstract level, the quest is likely that with which we are all faced on a daily basis, the unrelenting necessity of achieving some understanding of what life and existence itself is really all about.

“The Load-Out” begins the process of closing up shop for the album despite being its penultimate track. The tune, another live recording, moves seamlessly into Maurice Williams’ “Stay,” likely in the exact fashion as the night both tracks were recorded: August 27, 1977, at the Merriweather Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Here, Browne breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly and imploring them to remain at the venue for an encore performance. “Stay” saw moderate success as a single release in 1978 with “Rosie” as a B-side, and, within the context of its parent album, brings the conceptual and emotional threads being run through Running on Empty to satisfying respective conclusions.

Jackson Browne has carried the torch as a modern-day troubadour for several decades, and the craftsmanship of the songwriter’s output remains an astonishing feat in the realm of popular music. Browne allowed the pressures of success and the demands of life to gestate into a deeply personal yet highly accessible document in the form of Running on Empty, a project which stands as a testament to the immense artistic capacity of the songwriting legend.

Jackson Browne ‘Running on Empty’ Album Review  article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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