Jackson Browne’s 1976 album THE PRETENDER was his breakthrough,
an album on which he took the potent forces marshalled through his first
three records — literate lyrics of alienation and despair, sung by one
of the great voices of the ‘70s singer/songwriter era, backed by the
cream of the studio musicians then available — and reduced them to 35
minutes of engaging earnestness. It was also his biggest commercial
success to date, taking him to the Top Five of the album chart and into
the hearts of mainstream listeners.
Browne followed THE PRETENDER with RUNNING ON EMPTY — if not the first
concept album about a band on the road, then certainly one of the
finest. Recorded onstage, in hotel rooms and on tour buses, the album
offers a peek into the idle moments musicians experience when not in
front of audiences (sometimes to comic effect), as well as mining the
wanderlust of the traveling musician for answers to some of the Big
Questions in life — an area in which Browne excelled.
The former concern is chronicled in songs that range from the illicit
pleasures and lasting damage described in “Cocaine,” to the dawdling and
glad-handing in the cover of Danny O’Keefe’s “The Road,” to the
humorous coulda/shoulda-been story in “Rosie,” which ends with the
singer alone in his hotel room, engaging in a one night stand … with
It’s all fun and games until the real world creeps back in — when the
traveling musician must deal with his relationships back home, and when
he can’t muster what he needs to do that, he runs. “Love Needs a Heart,”
one of Browne’s finest ballads, finds the singer’s regret transforming
into motion (“Leaving behind the life that we’d begun / I split myself
in two”) and taking off, but no length of time on the road enables him
to escape — his lover’s pain elicits a sadness he can’t outrun.
On THE PRETENDER’s title track, Browne sang of being “aware of the time
going by,” noting, “They say in the end it's the wink of an eye.” He’s
still pondering this on RUNNING ON EMPTY’s title tune. He wonders where
the time has gone, and what he’s done with himself, how the years have
changed him. “I look around for the friends that I used to turn to pull
me through,” he sings. “Looking into their eyes I see them running too.”
What they’re all running from, he does not know, doesn’t understand.
Perhaps he’s yearning for home; perhaps there’s no home to go home to,
literally or figuratively, and all he can do is keep running.
RUNNING ON EMPTY’s questions and stories and rock ‘n’ roll connected
with those listeners going through similar issues, and in turn eclipsed
THE PRETENDER’s commercial successes, with several of its songs —
notably “Running on Empty” and the brilliant medley of Browne’s “The
Load Out” and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay” — played on the
radio to this day. It’s certainly one of Browne’s finest albums, one
worth returning to time and again.