Running on Empty
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2005, Volume 12, #11
Written by John Metzger
There’s no question that The Naked Ride Home was a long overdue return-to-form for Jackson Browne, and in hindsight, it proved to be a fitting capstone to a career that, in recent years, had been floundering for direction. Not that Browne has ever issued a wretched album, but many had begun to wonder if, in fact, his best work was in the past. Although he had flirted with greatness in 1993 when he turned I’m Alive into a heartbreaking, introspective ode to lost love, The Naked Ride Home was a more fully realized endeavor, one which not only encapsulated his entire body of work but also washed the slate so spotlessly clean that it opened the door for him to proceed with his next outing in virtually any direction that he desired. However, choosing which road to follow apparently has proven to be a difficult task, and as a result, Browne since has spent his time reflecting upon his life by compiling a two-disc retrospective titled The Very Best of Jackson Browne, documenting his recent tours with Solo Acoustic, Volume 1, and dusting off his seminal 1977 outing Running on Empty for a much-needed sonic restoration. Given that these are the sorts of projects to which artists turn when the creative well temporarily has run dry, none of this bodes favorably for the imminent production of new material.
So, what exactly is going on? Forget for a moment that Running on Empty has sold more than seven million copies to date and consequently makes the perfect starting point for Browne’s first venture into a new media format. In psychological terms, it’s the scene of the crime. Indeed, the collection was so well-received by both the public and critics that Browne struggled for the next 25 years to live up to the expectations that he had set for himself. It’s no wonder, then, that in spite of all the success that he found with The Naked Ride Home, he’s still trying to achieve closure.
Will Browne’s re-visitation of Running on Empty be the salve that cures his fragile psyche? Only time will tell, but in the interim, fans can feast on the stunning reconfiguration of his classic album. Packaged as a two-disc set, the CD-half faithfully presents the song cycle as it originally was issued, but the DVD portion is what makes the expenditure for an upgrade worthwhile. Granted, purists might be a tad annoyed that some of the material was tweaked slightly — the most notable alteration is the extended bus ride through the rolling blues of Nothing But Time — but the end result, which also includes several hundred extraordinarily insightful photographs, essentially transforms his documentary of life on the road into even more of a cinematic experience, one which easily justifies his minor modifications. After all, his is an epic tale that ultimately requires epic treatment, and who better than he would know precisely what that was.
Recorded entirely in the places where musicians most often congregate (hotel rooms, on the bus, on stage, and backstage), Running on Empty was an ambitious project that organically evolved from within the framework of a concert tour. Featuring the title track as its introductory overture and a pairing of The Load Out with Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ Stay as its fitting conclusion, it undeniably contained a narrative arc that was executed quite brilliantly and subsequently was borrowed by both Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) and Wilco (summerteeth). What truly made the album resonate, however, was its hard-hitting emotional content — that is, the isolation, the alienation, and the disillusion that lay beneath the miles of asphalt that paved its surface.
For certain, the life of a rock star is nearly as mythological as the allure of the open road. Yet, as Browne pulled back the curtain on his sojourns, he lay bare the illusion for what it was: an endless stream of gigs, parties, and one-night stands that quickly began to blur together into a lonely and bleak existence that inevitably made real relationships impossible to fathom. In doing so, he unquestionably revealed a lot about himself as well as the era in which Running on Empty was made, but in the process, he also managed to uncover universal truths about people, about life, and about the manner in which men and women tend to interact. These, of course, are subjects that already had frequented Browne’s compositions with tremendous regularity, but with each passing album, from his self-titled debut to The Pretender, he further refined and refocused his vision. In other words, Running on Empty was merely the culmination of his journey.
Too often, Browne’s material has been dismissed as sexist or, worse, misogynistic, but such statements typically have sprung from superficial examinations of his lyrics. True, Running on Empty was full of songs about casual liaisons with groupies, but there also was a distinctive yearning for greater connection embedded within its thematic content. For proof, look no further than the crushing Love Needs a Heart, which, co-written with Lowell George and Valerie Carter, painted an harrowing portrait of a man who desperately wants to stop compartmentalizing his emotions, but also can’t muster the courage to break free from his vicious cycle of jumping into a relationship and then fleeing from commitment. In fact, every aspect of Running on Empty was imbued with the tired and tense temperament that came from being in a constant state of motion, whether it was from town-to-town, person-to-person, or more frequently both, and there was little doubt that Browne, like many artists, thrived upon having his life be in a continuous state of flux. Yet, the tragic truth that he discovered was that even if it was the only way that he knew how to live, such a lifestyle wasn’t sufficient. It’s not surprising, then, that, along the way, he forged friendships among his band and crew and that he found joy solely when he was performing in front of his adoring fans. Such is the existence of a touring musician, and rarely has it been captured in as heartbreaking and eloquent a fashion as Browne accomplished with Running on Empty.
Of Further Interest...
Running on Empty [Original CD] is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box