I've been listening to Jackson Browne's album The Pretender since I was a very small child. It's actually one of the first albums I can remember hearing; I have memories of listening to it from a carseat, singing along even though I didn't really know the words. I grew up with it, and as I grew, my understanding of the songs also grew. The song "Daddy's Tune" brought me to tears shortly after my grandfather died. But as I listened to it a few weeks ago for the first time in many months, I felt a revelation, almost as though I'd never really heard it before.
The Pretender was Browne's fourth album. Despite the fact that he was a mere twenty-eight years old when it was released, it portrays a very world-weary songwriter. The songs on the album are about failed or failing romances, regrets, mediocrity, hope, understanding, a harsh world, and, more, finding your way in that world.
I think, perhaps, we all go through a period in our lives as we head toward our thirties and realize that we're not kids anymore but haven't really hit our strides as adults. How else to explain how much the songs on this album resonate with me right now? The feelings he describes--like something he says in "Your Bright Baby Blues": "No matter where I am / I can't help thinking I'm just a day away / From where I want to be"--are so familiar it almost seems like he was writing just for me.
Browne's albums always seem more the just a collection of songs; they have a theme that each song builds on. The title track, which ends the album, really brings it home. "The Pretender" is a song about the choices we make in life, about being, as Browne puts it, "Caught between the longing for love / And the struggle for the legal tender." I think a lot of us can in some way relate to the figure of the Pretender, a man "Who started out so young and strong / Only to surrender." And though it seems that there must be something of the songwriter in this sort of tragic character, we can also see that Browne separates himself from it. Indeed, Browne became quite an activist later in his career.
This is a choice we all make: whether to try for passion and greatness or to settle for a life of mediocrity. I wonder for myself if my reason for feeling so much from this music is because I really want more from my life. Maybe it's the books I grew up on, or maybe it was all the expectations of success people always had of me, but I think I always sort of wanted a big life. Is that true, though? Because, really, the stresses that come with being in the spotlight would wear on me, and, as it is, I have a lot to enjoy and be proud of in my life.
There's no easy answer, really--and even if I had an answer there wouldn't be room for it here. But if a song can bring these kinds of questions to mind, to inspire the kind of self-examination I've been doing lately, it must be a great song. Your mileage may vary, but I invite you to check out Jackson Browne, whom I consider to be one of rock's greatest poets.