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THROUGH THE CELLOPHASE shrink-wrap window encasing his latest release, all atweed to offset a glaring urban background, Jackson Browne seems to have exchanged "the bright and fragile glow for the glitter and the rouge." Hold Out is here in part tostatethat "the poet laureate of California rock" has made that trade and is living up to his promise to "be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender," and in part to entreat Browne's long-time idol, the mythical pure-of-heart to keep holding out against the compromises Browne himself has made. Both statement and plea are delivered with the trademark wry sincerity that has for five previous albums saved Browne's deep-hitting croon and crack lyric from choking outright on some very viscous sentiment.
Hold Out is a new chapter in Browne's continuing autobiography in vinyl, and a step beyond the nebulous genetic tradition of which turn-of-the-Seventies stars like Browne, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen found themselves strange bedfellows: Satyric Rock. Streetwise and nastily loveable, satyrs Lyricize an exultation of vestigial virginity, actual and metaphoric; on flipsides, however, they generally lament anti-climactic or foiled attempts at deflorestation.
Browne has allowed his virgins (including The)to be something more than life-size inflatable dolls. The five albums previous to Hold Out have the character of a series of tapestries depicting the coming of age of the Orange County rustic, a convincing though perhaps legendary character who--with the sun and stars, the night, the desert sand, heartbeats and the drum's beat--has embroidered into the Southern California landscape around him an evolving vision of the Apocalypse. And in songs like "Jamaica Say You Will," "Our Lady of the Well," and "For a Dancer," Browne populated that world with hold-outs, who stand apart from, or at most knee-deep in, the main-stream as they await the Deluge which will "wash this planet clean like the Bible said." Hold-outs are not always female, nor is their chastity always physical; that particular earth-bound purity embodies the amorphous, essential faith Browne is still defining with this sixth album.
Hold Out marks for Browne's style of definition a change that was prefigured by Running On Empty, or as in many ears fine-tuned to the "Old Jackson," the unveiling of the mass-marketable Browne stamped out by the starmaker machinery of the LA/Hollywood music industry. Either way, a healthy thread of the Old is still noticeable in the fabric of this studio slick, neon release: the familiar fibers--sun and stars, heart-and-drum-beat--have been incorporated in what feels at first an itchy, polyester-rich blend to those expecting Browne redux in torn T-shirt and broke-in jeans. And though the traditional elements remain, their combination is not the poetry alternating precision with ambiguity that made Browne's early albums all the more vital for their teenage (year, we got a band together and cut an album in the garage) sound.
That sound, coarsely textile as the water-tight cotton cover of Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using), has been replaced with one more metallic alloying steel and electronic instrumentation. This amalgamation of disco, cowboy rock, and R&B maintains a measure of continuity with the recent albums, aided perhaps by the continued presence of engineer Greg Ladanyi and several hold-overs from The Section, including David Lindley. Lindley's fiddle, alas, has no place in the new sound: Bill Payne, with the electronic organ heard out across the wilderness of "Your Bright Baby Blues" is a more likely Pied Piper for the post-adolescent who not long ago was a child in these hills. Though he's rolling down the other side of 30, Browne's voice has grown in strength, range, and balance; without losing their flow and ripples, his vocals have been clipped for an acute terseness: the voiceovers echo from a manhole now, instead of a deep valley.
But nobody's ever listened to Late for the Sky or The Pretender for the sound alone; it's been the words themselves. What Hold Out has to say it says directly, in lyrics much more literal and less literary than Browne's usual. Expecting metaphors for his world(s) in the road and the sky, you get hit point-blank with the sidestreets and the lurid bright-light Sunset Strip, strolled by hookers and hold-outs alike.
If a few spots, like the saccharin (in Browne's words "Very White") declaration at the album's finish, sound on the first spins like a spontaneous outpouring of banal feelings, and half-felt at that, more play makes it seem likely that they are, and that Browne is not steadfastly serious about them. He's still wandering the tightrope between a purely romantic sensibility and the flatly cynical "life is shit so let's screw," attitude of a Satyr.
In specific cuts, Browne looks back over his shoulder at a number of earlier songs, and reexamines both his Armageddon and the sorts of hold-outs who survive. He opens with "Disco Apocalypse," a "self-mocking parody" and skeptical glance backward at "Before the Deluge," in which the dreamers and fools with the energy of the innocent struggle to deliver Mother Earth from the hands of her defilers. With this "affectionate nod to disco." Browne turns to those caught in the sounds and sights of the avenue: Hearts beating to a disco drummer, they wait for the end of the world while the juke box and the radio play.
IT'S NO LONGER a question of waiting for Everyman. Through the five songs that follow, looking into the dancers, for some hold-outs who are no longer around, and cynically at himself in relation to holding out, Browne builds up to the expected finale. "Hold On Hold Out," the result of a collaboration with pianist Craig Doege, urges Browne's omnipresent You to keep holding out. As all rises in a mightily orchestrated (or engineered) crescendo, the lyric breaks into a prosaic, namby-pamby identification of Browne himself as a hold-out too, wanting to fly. But just as the cyclamates reach the carcinogenic threshold, and Browne declares for the first time in a song, "I love you...," he lets himself and the listener off the hook, waving his true Satyric colors: "Well just look at yourself--what else wouldI do?"
Thought Hold Out gives a culture shock as it drags you (yes, you still mourning the Browne of the '70s, you're a hold-out, too) into the '80s, there are a few things to remember the Old Jackson by: from the Karen Silkwood T-shirt hibernating beneath the cover's collegiate get-up to the extra-lyrical remarks following "Boulevard," there remains the characteristic sense of earnestness taken only half-seriously. Holding out is no longer the mythic concept of embattled separateness familiar from "Father On" or "From Silver Lake," nor is it the sole property of the omni-virginal You and vestal She. Despite the synicism with which he regards himself, the hold-out is even in Browne, who incoming through artistic puberty has wised up to the ironies and fallacies implicit in holding out, yet held onto the faith he may pretend to have forsaken. He emerges here, alongside the hold-out he's likely to keep pursuing, as a somewhat jaded ingenue.
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