Classic Americana Albums: Jackson Browne “Late for the Sky”

Elektra, 1974

Trawling back through the Americana UK archives I was surprised to see how little mention this excellent album from Jackson Browne has received in recent years. Jackson Browne remains one of the great songwriters of Americana and, for many, this rates as one of his best albums, yet it rarely seems to get the appreciation it deserves. Just one of our writers, Peter Churchill, listed it in his Top 10 Americana Albums and, over the last couple of years, the title track was among Editor Mark Whitfield’s “Songs For The Apocalypse” and the track ‘For A Dancer’ featured in one of Mark Underwood’s articles on “Americana Songs with Great Lyrics” – it seems scant recognition for such an iconic album.

Of course, ‘Late For The Sky’ was recorded almost fifty years ago and was only Browne’s third album. There have been many more since and, while there’s been a lot of good material from those subsequent albums, it’s hard to think of one album that seems as complete and as finely crafted as ‘Late For the Sky’. There’s always a danger, I think, with artists that have been around for so long and have become so entrenched in our musical memories, that we start to take them for granted. I think that’s what has happened, to some degree, with Jackson Browne. He’s always been around and he’s always produced good music and we just accept that as the norm, but he’ll be 73 later this year and he won’t always be with us – we really should enjoy him while we can.

With that in mind, I decided that this should be my pick for this Classic Americana Album article. Listening to it again you immediately remember what a fine album it is. Browne is in great voice and superbly supported by a stellar cast of guests, including Don Henley, Terry Reid, J.D. Souther, Dan Fogelberg and many more. It’s the first of many albums that David Lindley joined him on, providing guitar, lap steel, fiddle and harmony vocals on a variety of tracks and showing why he would become a mainstay of Browne’s band for the rest of the 70s and into the early 80s. The writing is of a really high standard and, to my ears, there’s no filler material on the album and the big stand-out tracks – ‘Fountain of Sorrow’, ‘For a Dancer’, the epic ‘Before the Deluge’ and the title track itself are among the best songs he has written throughout his career. That he was just shy of his twenty-sixth birthday when it was released is an indication of what a sophisticated songwriter he had already become.

Because of studio pressure, the album was completed in just six weeks and at half the cost of his previous album, “For Everyman”, which had been considered something of a disappointment after the critical success of his debut recording. The decision to use his touring band and to co-produce the album himself, working with engineer Al Schmitt (who would go on to work with the likes of Steely Dan, Toto and Quincy Jones), in order to keep costs down and speed up production, paid dividends and helped to focus the selection of material and keep the recordings sounding fresh and lively. To some extent, this is at odds with the albums main themes of exploring romantic possibility while under the threat of apocalypse and a dystopian future. Browne’s songs often accomplish the seeming paradox of sounding positive while close examination of his lyrics expose them as being quite bleak but, to me, Browne’s songs are so often about looking for the glimmer of gold among the debris as, for example, in Fountain of Sorrow, probably my personal favourite cut from the album – “Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light. You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight. You’ve had to hide sometimes but now you’re alright, and it’s good to see your smiling face tonight”.

Browne’s songs are proof positive that negative emotions don’t always have to be conveyed by a dark and gloomy song and that a song that sounds miserable can still carry positive messages. This is an album that is so full of clever and considered songwriting; that he could produce eight songs of this quality on a single album is still impressive all these years later.

Rolling Stone’s Album Guide describes ‘Late For the Sky’ as “the quintessential Browne album….when his songwriting is sharp, the mellowing trend in his music dulls the impact”. Released in September 1974 the album peaked at number 14 on the Billboard chart, would achieve gold record status in the year of its release and would, eventually, achieve platinum status as well.

If you haven’t listened to ‘Late For the Sky’ in a while, do yourself a favour and revisit it and remind yourself why this is a genuinely classic Americana album.

 


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About Rick Bayles 218 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

11 Comments

  1. Late For The Sky is his finest hour.

    Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
    I was taken by a photograph of you
    There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
    But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true

    You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
    And I took your childish laughter by surprise
    And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
    There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes

  2. Wonderful songwriter. Running on Empty is a great song. Check out the Bob Schneider version on the double cd tribute.

  3. Not a bad choice! Not a bad track on it. But there again, it’s my favourite album of all time. I think it might just find its way onto the turntable again tonight.

    “I don’t know what happens when people die
    Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try……..

    ……And somewhere between the time you arrive
    And the time you go
    May lie a reason you were alive
    That you’ll never know.”

    ( For a Dancer)

  4. What a great essay on a classic album by a superb performer—-even if I had to do a double take at the mention of it being nearly 50 years old and Jackson himself being 73 later this year ,
    Mind you he’s ageing better than a lot of his contemporaries !
    Will be dusting my copy down later .

    • Thanks for the kind comment Colin. Looking at the various comments here I’m really glad that the article seems to have encouraged a few people to re-visit the album.

  5. An old timer writes: Contrary to what this deserved eulogy to Late For the Sky asserts, I was around when For Everyman came out and recall both positive reviews and widespread enthusiasm, bordering on reverence, for it among the growing band of JB fans.

    • Phil – I suspect we’re of a similar vintage. I also remember the release of ‘For Everyman’ and of it attracting a lot of very positive press. I wasn’t suggesting for a moment that it wasn’t well-received by critics and fans alike but, researching the article, it seems that Asylum were disappointed with its commercial performance, given the amount of time and money that had been lavished on it. They’d expected it to build significantly on the interest in his debut recording and it underperformed as far as they were concerned – so the budget for ‘Late for the Sky’ was half that of ‘For Everyman’ and he was told to spend no more than 6 weeks on it. My point, such as it was, was that though it was a purely financial decision by the record company, it paid off artistically by giving the album a freshness and urgency that was a little lacking on ‘For Everyman’, fine album though it is.

      • Good point, well made. For Everyman is a wonderful album, very much part of my ‘growing up’ (not that I’ve managed it yet, nudging 70). I guess I felt a bit defensive about it!

  6. Nice one Rick, hits the nail on the head. I also love the cover – based on Rene Magritte’s “Empire of Light”, hence the comment on the album sleeve “Cover concept by Jackson Browne if it’s all reet with Magritte”. We saw the original painting in the Guggenheim in Venice, though I believe there are several versions. The song “Late for the Sky” is also used to great effect in the movie “Taxidriver” although it doesn’t make the soundtrack album for some reason. Jackson is still working hard for all sorts of good causes – a real gentleman and a great humanitarian.

  7. I agree with everyone. A real classic. Thank you for encouraging those memories to the surface. It was a very meaningful time in my life.

  8. Thank you Rick for a super write up, worthy of the album itself.
    Late For The Sky is probably my all time favourite album* and has followed me as if it were The Tracks Of My Life.
    Each song is a masterpiece. The writing so precise but filled with a magic with which each and every one of us can take it as if it was written for only us.
    The album has certainly helped me through various chapters of my life – and continues to do so.
    For A Dancer has already been selected for my farewell from this mortal coil.
    Cheers Ken

    *Saying something when I am a huge fan of Dylan/Young/Van Zandt/Zevon et al

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