The Art of Tone and Quality

Jackson Browne’s The Pretender in a Cultural and Historic Context

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Being quite the fan of Jackson Browne, whose music has been an integral part of the soundtrack to my life, I’ve picked up everything he has ever released from 1972 through 2011 along the way.  This previous (and heavily edited) piece of writing from the email list I used to maintain seemed fitting for this morning & chronicles one of Browne’s better known songs, “The Pretender” (the final cut on his 1976 Asylum Records release of the same title).

As dark as “The Pretender” gets, the song still exhibits tension between resignation and its alternative.  The tragic surrender foreshadowed in splendid detail via the disheartening routine (“I pack my lunch in the morning and go to work each day.  And when the evening rolls around, I go on home and lay my weary body down.  And when the morning light comes streaming in, I’ll get up and do it again”), the changes he waits for love to bring that never come to fruition.

And still, he sees children waiting for the ice cream vendor (though they do wait solemnly) and hears the laughter of the lovers running through the night.

Yet, his temporary glimpses of beauty only serve to heighten the tension in a world where so many others are left to “tear at the world with all their might.”  You see that tension articulated in the magnificent lyric, “caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender.”

The Pretender desires what we all do; to make some sense of life’s complexities and to cling to love as the antidote for the human condition.  So with no small amount of urgency The Pretender resolves to “find [himself] a girl who can show [him] what laughter means” and to “fill in the missing colors in each others paint-by-number dreams.”

And then comes the twist of the knife.  For the first time in Browne’s writing up until then (1976), romantic love is not enough.  Previously, Browne’s juxtaposition of world-weary themes and “the longing for love” kept his characters from losing their way entirely, but The Pretender is beyond those lovers Late For the Sky, or Everyman confronting the price “for having learned how not to cry” in Doctor My Eyes.  As the logical progression of Browne’s previous characters growing up in their time and cultural context — that long, slow afterburn of the 1960s —  The Pretender lost in a materialistic post-Vietnam America where he ultimately surrenders to “the ads [which] take aim and lay their claim to the heart and the soul of the spender.”   Forsaking the only thing that matters in the long run, The Pretender comes to “believe in whatever may lie in those things that money can buy.”

At last, his fate is ultimately accepted, though not glorified.  Like Springsteen, Dylan and Woody Guthrie, Browne empathizes more with the losers than the winners.  Putting the song it its cultural and historic context, those struggling to make it through a post-Vietnam America littered with the spent possibilities and lost idealism of the ’60s counter-culture are given a voice, weary as it may be (“you know, a lot of that Summer of Love stuff was really bullshit,” George Harrison would later say rather quotably).  With no small amount of sadness, The Pretender isn’t even fooling himself, and functions as that voice in the darkness fashioning daylight out of song Browne would so eloquently put into verse well over an entire decade later (see “Alive In the World” off of the “Looking East” release).  Much like Dylan, here’s a guy who wasn’t afraid to confront the hypocrisy of the human heart in a staggering body of work, no better illustrated than in this remarkable live performance.

“Are you there? Say a prayer for the pretender, who started out so young and strong only to surrender” he asks.  Wouldn’t you have to have a heart of stone to not grant the heartbroken plea?


Written by toneandquality

December 9, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Rock and Roll

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