For Everyman opens with a small surprise that time has sharpened: a cover of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Not a cover, exactly, since Jackson Browne co-wrote it with Glenn Frey and was entitled to joint custody. But the Eagles had already hit with it, and the verdict of four decades has made it even more emphatically theirs. So now it is a pleasant change of pace to hear Jackson’s version, even if the song doesn’t quite fit him. Lighten up while you still can? Don’t even try to understand? That’s not what we look to Browne for. We want him to take it seriously, think deeply about it, and turn it into easy (but not too easy) listening. And so he does. His version of the song is more taut, less exuberantly soaring. Those Eagles three-part harmonies are gone, replaced by two-part harmonies on the chorus that are full of open-sounding fourth and fifths and that feel less confidently jubilant, more anxious. The minor chords sound more prominent here, and the giddy, banjo-fueled coda of the Eagles’ version is gone, replaced by a slow fade that doesn’t quite fade but instead segues into the next song. The two songs overlap, in fact, although they were apparently recorded separately, with different musicians. It’s a neat trick, one Browne repeats at the end of the album.
That second song inhabits more familiar Jackson Browne terrain. “Our Lady of the Well” finds him measuring the distance between himself and Maria—an ex-lover?—between his life and hers, his country and hers. She is presumably Mexican; he has come across the sand to find her among her “people in the sun / Where the families work the land, as they have always done.” He views her life sentimentally but realizes that his “heart remains among” the people he has left behind, and he must return to them. Not that we expected him to stay and work the land. Still, we are glad he has gotten some perspective on his life, and the song ends with a promise to show her what he has made: “It’s a picture for our lady of the well.” All’s well that ends well.
Or not quite, because the next song opens with an ominous, modal-sounding, sequence and our hero seems to be trapped in some kind of dreamscape (“Picking for a coin / Many other tiny worlds / Singing past my hand.”), or maybe still in Mexico (he says goodbye to Joseph and Maria at one point, suggesting some connection to the previous song). I can’t make much sense of all this, but the chorus is pretty, and Don Henley contributes some lovely high harmony. He is buried in the mix, however (revenge?), so that one cannot recognize his distinctive voice.
Next comes “I Thought I Was a Child,” which opens with a delicate piano solo by Bill Payne of Little Feat, joined eventually by David Lindley’s guitar. When Browne enters, however, his vocal sounds flat, both in terms of pitch and emotion. One notable feature of Browne’s pre-Pretender albums is how little reverb there is on the vocals. It is as if, striving for directness and honesty and bareness, he has eschewed all studio trickery. But here the vocals could stand a little beefing up, and anyone who knows Bonnie Raitt’s slightly slicker cover of this song (also 1973) feels again the inferiority of Browne’s version—or, perhaps, feels the absence of a producer on For Everyman.
Side one closes with a statement of sorts, a version of “These Days,” written by Browne at age sixteen and first recorded by Nico in 1967. On her Chelsea Girl it is an arty, folky ballad, with finger-picked guitar, a string quartet, and Nico’s flat, affectless delivery. That brittle take on the song is replaced here by a slower, more soulful arrangement that the album announces is “inspired by Gregg Allman.” Allman had covered the song on his 1973 solo album Laid Back, and I guess Browne liked the arrangement and copied it. It doesn’t quite come together for me as an anthem, although the interplay between Browne’s voice and Lindley’s slide guitar is compelling–something like what you get with Ron Wood and Rod Stewart on Rod’s first few solo albums. And the song moves prettily, poignantly back and forth between its major and minor chords. The best moment, though, comes with the song’s last words: “Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them.” But the final minute and a half of slide-guitar noodling is anti-climactic—pure self-indulgence on Lindley’s part.
Side two kicks off with “Redneck Friend,” one of what Nick Hornby has called Browne’s “limp, hapless, thankfully rare attempts to rock out.” I find this rocking out perfectly convincing, however. Jim Keltner is unimpeachable on drums, and Elton John (a.k.a. “Rockaday Johnnie”) does his best Jerry Lee Lewis impression. Lindley’s slide guitar is laid on thick, but it doesn’t weigh things down, and Browne plausibly simulates someone capable of shaking, rattling, and rolling on down the line. Like Springsteen’s “Rosalita” (also 1973), the song invites a young lady to escape from her stifling parents and take off with the singer. I have some fears that “Redneck Friend” is an allusion to Browne’s penis—“Rosie” on Running on Empty shows how he enjoys a penis joke—but maybe it’s just an invitation to hang out with Don Henley.
At this point, the rocking out ceases and we are back in mellow-ville. “Afternoons of smoke and wine” is a phrase from Browne’s first album, but I always associate it with “The Times You’ve Come.” This is another song that takes stock of an off-and-on romantic relationship; the details are not important. What matters is the bridge, in which suddenly Bonnie Raitt appears and harmonizes on the following lines: “Everybody’s going to tell you it’s not worth it / Everybody’s got to show you their own pain.” The final verse takes (again) a displeasingly post-coital turn (“Now we’re lying here / So safe in the ruins of our pleasure”), and one begins to suspect a pun on “come.” Yuck.
The puerility of such a pun, if there is one, sets the stage for “Ready or Not,” Browne’s supremely callow ode to an unplanned pregnancy. I hope the callowness is deliberate or “ironic,” but I doubt it. Still, the song stands as an artifact of casual seventies sexism and as proof that, even in the year of Roe v. Wade, abortion was not a viable outcome for characters in pop songs. Fortunately, the woman ends up “feeling better about it all the time,” and she willingly exchanges “all of her running around” for “some meaning.” By the song’s end, even the singer, who identifies himself as “a rock-and-roll band man,” is “thinking about settling down.” Isn’t that big of him?
From the ridiculous to the sublime. For Everyman’s penultimate song is my favorite. It’s the shortest song on the album, and it is somewhat overshadowed by the title track into which it segues, but it is a marvel of quiet intensity and aching lyricism. The ominous, brooding opening sounds a bit like that of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and while the song mostly just moves back and forth between two chords, the textures and flourishes are gorgeous. Is it just a coincidence that Joni Mitchell and her sometime-bassist Wilton Felder are playing on this cut? No. Her sinewy, barely audible electric piano is an essential dramatic element, especially at 2:22 when the song introduces a surprising new chord, and Joni provides a sly, ascending line to ornament it. She steals the show.
For me, at least, though probably not for every man. When an album’s last cut is its title track, you know you are in for a Statement (e.g., “The Pretender”). “For Everyman” provides it, one of Browne’s several meditations on the imminent earthquake/apocalypse (see also: “From Silver Lake,” “Before the Deluge,” “The Fuse”). It’s a nice mid-tempo number, with beautifully understated harmonies from the redoubtable David Crosby, and cascading drum fills from Russ Kunkel (we’re deep in James Taylor country here, with Leland Sklar on bass as well). What is the song’s, the album’s message? Something about everyman. Unlike in the medieval morality play of that title, Everyman here is more of a messiah figure than a representative of you and me. Or maybe they are one and the same? If he were writing for every man instead of waiting for him, it would make more sense. But when we’re easily listening, we care less about the sense than the sound.