Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August 31: Jackson Browne, "Runnin' On Empty"

Artist: Jackson Browne
Song: "Runnin' On Empty"
Album: Runnin' On Empty
Year: 1977

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though every musical genre carries with it a handful of preconceived notions and assumptions, there are few that have earned a reputation that can be as far off base as that of the oft-combined genre of folk music and the sub-genre of "singer/songwriter."  The latter of these two terms is in itself a rather ignorant term, as performers of every genre feature singers who are also that bands' songwriter, and yet the term has become a definition onto itself over the past few decades.  These two types of music are often assumed to be the more mellow and easy going styles, and yet one cannot overlook the fact that some of the finest songs of defiance and frustration were birthed from the folk genre, and it has also provided the world with some of the most disturbing and moving words ever composed.  Easily making a case as one of the most elite performers in the entire history of the genre, in terms of both musical approach and lyrics, few took as distinctive a take on the folk or "singer/songwriter" sound as one can find all across the catalog of Jackson Browne.  Releasing album after album of songs that have become true "standards" all across the globe, it is almost impossible to cite a single album, let alone a song as his finest recorded moment.  However, when one inspects the long history of music, there are few recordings that are as timeless or powerful as what can be experienced on Jackson Browne's brilliant 1978 song, "Runnin' On Empty."

Serving as the title track to the album, "Runnin' On Empty" in title alone gives the listener a quick understanding of what this rather unique live release was all about.  Combining studio and live recordings, Runnin' On Empty has an absolutely unparalleled sense of movement, and it is the title track that remains the finest moment.  This version was actually recorded at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland on August 27,1977, and Browne's band rarely sounded better than they do here.  In many ways, the track is led by drummer Russ Kunkel, and it is the way that he kicks the song off that makes it almost impossible to pigeon-hole the track under the "restrictions" of the genres as discussed above.  There is an almost rock-feel to his playing, and it is far more aggressive than the traditional "folk" style, yet it never gets too loud or forceful that it would turn away such listeners.  The trio of guitars seem to melt perfectly together, adding brilliant textures and secondary rhythms to "Runnin' On Empty," providing the track with much of its musical depth.  The solo taken mid-way through the song also places "Runnin' On Empty" far more into the "rock" style, and it is this almost duality in existence that not only prove the overall irrelevance of genre-based assumptions, as well as the phenomenal talents that Jackson Browne possesses as both a composer as well as a musician in every sense of the word.

While in many ways, the music to "Runnin' On Empty" is absolutely enough in itself to make for a classic moment, it is the final addition of the vocals of Jackson Browne that vault the song into the most beloved songs in history.  However, while the music on this track certainly makes it seem as if he has no place within the confines of the folk genre, it is his absolutely beautiful voice that make it clear why he is one of the finest representatives of the style.  There is a pure power and honesty within Browne's singing that have rarely been matched, and it is this raw sound to which people from all walks of life can easily relate.  The melody which he sings is just as catchy as the music itself, and the chorus is so perfectly structured that it is almost impossible not to sing along.  Again, this marks a point where "Runnin' On Empty" seems to be a bit distant from the "normal" folk style, which by 1977 had been molded into something far more bland than the original spirit of the sound.  Along with this reminder that folk music is at its core a style to be shared, the lyrics of "Runnin' On Empty" speak similarly, and it is within the words where the final elements of the "movement" exists.  Browne's words can be interpreted on a number of levels, as they create sentiments on the passage of time that can be translated into almost any situation, and it is this final element that has enabled "Runnin' On Empty" to become a truly timeless song.

As the decades have passed, "Runnin' On Empty" has easily withstood the test of time, and countless artists from across the musical spectrum have recorded their own takes on the song.  With covers and references appearing in everything from "arena rock" to hip-hop, the fact that the song has engaged such a wide audience is perhaps all one needs to understand just why Jackson Browne remains such a highly regarded figure in the long history of music.  It was also this song which created a great deal of controversy when it was used without permission in a number of "attack" ads during the 2008 Presidential election.  Whether it was due to the fantastic, strangely inspiring musical arrangement or the smooth, yet strong and engaging vocals, there are few songs in history that play as truly perfect as "Runnin' On Empty."  It is also the energy that one can feel due to this being a live recording that adds further to the overall impact of the song, and while one can find studio takes of "Runnin' On Empty," there is no question that it is the original live release that remains the definitive take on the track.  The fact that some listeners continue to look past the spectacular music and talents of Jackson Browne lives on as proof that making any sort of classification is beyond an imperfect science, as he manages to perfectly deploy the classic arrangement and moods of folk into a more rock-based sound on his absolutely unforgettable 1977 song, "Runnin' On Empty."

No comments: