Dancing our sorrow away... no one does poignancy quite like Jackson Browne. Especially with a maestro like fiddler David Lindley for an accomplice. Most critics wrote of Browne's third album, Late For The Sky, in 1974 that it contained two masterpieces, For A Dancer and Before The Deluge, but I would contend there were four, alongside the title track and the beautiful Fountain Of Sorrow, purportedly inspired by Browne’s painful liaison with Joni Mitchell.
For A Dancer, however, is my enduring favourite. It sounds at first like a lament but there is hope and redemption amid the sense of loss following the still raw death of his close friend Scott Runyon.
Runyon, a dancer, skater, painter and sculptor, died in a house fire, and Browne's sadness – reminiscent of his emotions on Song For Adam on his debut album, Saturate Before Using – is movingly expressed:
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 listening
The Rolling Stone reviewer Stephen Holden said of Late For The Sky, still Browne's strongest body of work: '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 as Browne has on this album.'
For those of us only slightly younger than Browne, these days (now there’s a song) bristled with romantic idealism. I had married only a couple of years before and had helped to launch a folk-blues club in the garret of a Liverpool pub. Singer-songwriters were queueing at the door with their covers of material by Dylan, Cohen, Lennon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell – and Browne. Some of us merged the qualities of each for our own compositions – to not always successful effect. But any dream seemed possible, any possibilities dreamed of. Optimism had yet to be quashed by the autocracy of the 80s.
The intimacy and introspection of Browne's early years, before saving the planet and America from itself became a crusade, is magnificently augmented by the multi-instrumental talents of Lindley. As his distinctive guitar provides dramatic embellishment on Fountain Of Sorrow, his fiddle on For A Dancer enchantingly echoes the theme of the song. Lindley plays the dancer, waltzing and weaving around and within Browne's warm vocal and piano chords.
The German-born Californian’s melodies have always been limited but there is comfort and a quiet authority in the familiar with always scope for surprise, a twist in the trusted patterns. Here is a lyrical lord at work, with the distinguished accompaniment and sparse production an eloquent vehicle.
So in the end, out of the melancholy, Browne keeps a fire burning for the human race. Life has characteristics, however transitory, to cling to...
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
The world keeps turning around and around
Go on and make a joyful sound
Browne is still doing just that. Let us hope For A Dancer is on his playlist for the Royal Albert Hall shows this June.