The NOISE at the Santa Monica Pier was deafening -- the screech of metal cars on the roller coaster, the laughter of teenagers, the tinny symphony of bells, whistles and buzzers from the boardwalk booths and bass-heavy pop songs blaring from unseen speakers. Above it all, a serene Jackson Browne sat in a slowly swaying gondola atop the Ferris wheel and looked out on the Pacific and the past.
"I used to come down here a lot when I was a kid. I grew up in Highland Park until I was about 13. It was a long way on a city bus, a couple of hours. It was the early 1960s and a lot of the vatos would be here from South Central. I tried to win teddy bears and talk to girls. I lost my father's straight-edge razor once on the roller coaster. It slipped out of my tanker jacket pocket. I used to carry the razor, a dog chain, a pack of Lucky Strikes. A tough guy, huh?"
Browne, perhaps the prettiest of pretty boys on the Southern California songwriter scene in the 1970s, chuckled at the memory. He is now a year shy of 60 and just released his first studio album in six years, which has the sobering title of "Time the Conqueror" and a black-and-white cover photo of Browne with a silver beard and menacing expression. This biker version of Browne, in fact, looks like he might be packing a blade again.
Atop the Ferris wheel, Browne (who has shaved the beard) is neither threatening nor especially maudlin about the passage of time. The album title is no great message. "It's just a line from a song, but it has to hang out there. I use the title of songs as the title of the album, I always have, and when you pick a song title, nobody thinks you're saying something. They think it's a thematic statement. But when you make it the album title, then they try to read into it. I just like that song."
There are many songs that Browne likes on this 10-track album. Critics, who love when an artist with a distinguished songbook delivers new material that has urgency to it, have praised the album. J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post, for instance, said the new material has a "terrific touch" and described it as contemplative, vividly drawn, soaring, echoing and atmospheric -- and that was in just one paragraph.
Browne is familiar with critical acclaim but he's also accustomed to falling out of favor. The same artist who was hailed in the 1970s for the soul-searching masterpieces of "The Pretender," "Late for the Sky" and "Running on Empty" found a chillier reception in the 19'80s as his music became much more overtly political. Some people said his songwriting seemed to have too much to say and too little to feel, as if he was crafting a soundtrack to a civics lesson.
Spending a couple of hours with Browne, it's easy to see how he might err on the side of jamming too many ideas between the choruses. He is an avid reader and student of culture and his casual conversation is a bit breathless; in a matter of minutes he waxed on about the photography of Bruce Weber, the new hillbilly noir of Ry Cooder, the sublime purity of the Allman Brothers, the prose of Gretel Ehrlich and the cultural deductions of Eduardo Galeano.
Browne is a thinking man, but he is also a romantic. Pausing on an overpass above Pacific Coast Highway, he pulled off his sunglasses and talked about family trips he took as a kid.
"My first pangs of real love and longing were at campsites," he said. "Your family would go and you'd be there for weeks and there was enough time to get into really serious infatuation, that sort of crushing longing. You never really forget that. I used to sing about that a lot. I guess everybody does."
Browne hasn't set aside politics on the new album. The third track, "The Drums of War," speaks for itself -- it's a bitter attack on the Bush administration -- and the album closes with "Far From the Arms of Hunger," while "Where Were You?" paints a portrait of a callous government leaving the victims of Hurricane Katrina to die and suffer. The latter was inspired in part by a Weber photograph, he said.
"After all I had read, after all that was being said about Katrina, there was this one photograph of this flag that was probably in the marketplace somewhere. It had some words written on it, which I think might be from an old spiritual song: 'If ever I cease to love.' Think of that. 'If ever I cease to love.' If we did, what would become of us? And, really, isn't that the problem in the first place? If you can't love, it's over. We'll all go down."
Seeing red -- and blue
Political songs don't always win over crowds, Browne noted with a wry chuckle, but he said he can't really see any other way to sing about his passions without going into the bright-color differences between blue and red states.