Jackson Browne

Ravinia, August 24

Arie Crown Theatre, August 25

By Mark Guarino

If the early 80s will be remembered for the advent of the Material Girl, that decade’s latter half will surely be known for the opposite: after 1985’s Live Aid and the rash of relief records that followed, social work had never looked so glamorous. Suddenly, artists who never before fashioned their music around grand themes were now recording albums that invoked at least one terrible global disease and came wrapped in social-justice address books instead of liner notes.

It was as if Oliver Stone had just joined ASCAP. Subtlety was out, name-dropping was in. Bands that had previously displayed political leanings had to turn bombastic to keep up. U2 topped its comparatively subtle 1984 ode to Martin Luther King Jr., “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” with the live version on 1988’s Rattle and Hum, in which the Edge allowed Bono a few hundred bars to extol the late leader’s accomplishments and, while he was at it, rail against Charles Manson, apartheid, TV preachers, and Albert Goldman, who once wrote nasty things about John Lennon. In between rain forest tours, Sting took on Chilean dictator Pinochet on …Nothing Like the Sun (1987), while Lou Reed blasted non-Manhattanites from the Pope to Jesse Jackson to Kurt Waldheim on New York (1989). Jackson Browne turned his albums Lives in the Balance (1986) and World in Motion (1989) into melodramatic slaps at the U.S. government for its secret wars in Central America. Even Phil Collins entered the fray and scored with a hit single about homeless people from his 1989 solo album, named …But Seriously–if you didn’t get the hint already.

From this new pop landscape sprouted a raft of artists that otherwise might have lived and died on college radio. Indigo Girls, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, 10,000 Maniacs, and Midnight Oil all delivered dour sociopolitical messages–perfect for the exploding market that record companies were starting to exploit. At the tail end of disco and mindless synth-pop, it seemed consumers were after redemptive music, something they could feel good about listening to.

Ten years later blatant politicking has been thrown to a younger generation of fans. That much of pop music’s core audience latched onto the new, whitewashed country music was a good sign that people were looking for a kinder, gentler background noise, and those artists who originally traded songwriting for soapboxes began clambering out from under their weight. After his somber Soul Cages effort befuddled the masses, Sting began recording movie sound track fillers, including a remake of “Demolition Man” with the Police for the Stallone flick of that name. He sang with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart and produced a greatest hits compilation. His last two albums–Ten Summoner’s Tales and Mercury Falling–are both harmless touring vehicles.

In the same vein, Tracy Chapman has returned this year with the aptly titled New Beginning, a bluesy walk-through whose most political statement is a coupon slipped in the booklet that can be redeemed for free sunflower seeds. Natalie Merchant’s break with 10,000 Maniacs was also a break from the heavy-handedness that marked that band’s career. On her solo album, Tigerlily, she delivers danceable pop so light you can see her smiling. Lou Reed’s writing love songs about Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega’s discovered industrial noise, and Phil Collins fell off the face of the earth and recorded a West Side Story cover–or vice versa.

And nary a freedom fighter can be found on either of Jackson Browne’s last two albums, I’m Alive and Looking East. Both find him returning to familiar ground: the tortured love songs that brought him to prominence in the early 70s.

But trading politics for pap doesn’t solve the real problem these artists are facing, which is a lack of poignancy. They seem to share a mistaken belief that to convey a difficult emotion or life lesson, a song must be tactfully exact. In fact, some of the more effective singer-songwriters–Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, John Prine–zoom in on symbolic moments, just like any good short-story writer, helping the listeners to find the point where their lives and the characters’ lives are laced together. An album becomes a classic when, over time, it has developed into an interaction between listener and musician, not a monologue that thinks it’s being really, really profound.

Jackson Browne played to a capacity crowd Saturday, his first Ravinia show since 1978, when ticketholders reportedly scaled trees after lawn spots dried up. Most of the night’s songs either promoted his new album or recalled that show with early favorites like “Fountains of Sorrow,” from his 1974 masterpiece of romantic gloom, Late for the Sky. Even on the eve of the Democratic convention, Browne shied away from politics where a decade earlier he would have gladly taken the opportunity to preach. In introducing “I’m the Cat,” from Looking East, all he had to offer was that “some people think it’s political, some think it’s about sex; I think it’s about control.”

Although he did consent to a few audience requests, Browne escaped becoming a human jukebox by delving into lesser-known but far superior material such as “Jamaica Say You Will,” “For Everyman,” “Your Bright Baby Blues,” and “The Times You’ve Come,” for which he was joined by Bonnie Raitt. It was a night of relief on both sides–no shouts for protest songs and none given. That is, until the next day at Senator Tom Hayden’s “Day of Healing” event at the Arie Crown Theatre. After all, what else could be sung when you’re the opening act for Norman Mailer, Jesse Jackson, former senator Paul Simon, and Studs Terkel? Browne’s short set with Raitt, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash allowed him a chance to sing “World in Motion” and “I Am a Patriot”–songs a typical Ravinia crowd might use as excuses to go check their voice mail.

At some point, Browne must have understood that socially redeeming songs need not be about Newt Gingrich or welfare mothers. Whether he knows it or not, the best, if most misunderstood, political song he’s ever written is “The Pretender,” from 1976. At Ravinia, as he sang “I’m going to be a happy idiot / And struggle for the legal tender,” a park full of technologically accessorized, upwardly mobile baby boomers gleefully replied in unison, “Amen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, by James Crump.