Late for the Sky

Written and Recorded by Jackson Browne

I count this 1974 album from Jackson Browne as one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of rock music.

If your evaluation is just based on the album's sales, or on the number of hit singles it generated, or even on the average quality of the individual tracks, then you could easily place it at a mere # 375 on a list of the greatest albums of all time, as did the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in their most recent update to list they refer to as “definitive.”

But the album is so much more than any of these individual attributes.

What Browne accomplished on Late For the Sky was to deliver an extended meditation on the cycle of enchantment and disillusionment that is arguably at the center of our human existence, and his examination of this subject ranged from the intensely personal to the broadly cultural. When viewed within this overarching concept, each component of the album takes on heightened meaning, as each piece adds to, and is also enhanced by, the integrity of the whole.

In order to explain what I mean here, I'd like permission to take you on an in-depth journey through the album. I think I can promise that your understanding of the work will be enhanced by the time spent, but I can also say with some confidence that your understanding of the full potential of rock music – and perhaps even your understanding of the human condition – will also be expanded by the journey.


Can I Get A Witness?

As it happens, I'm not the only one who holds this album in such high regard.

Here are the words delivered by Bruce Springsteen on the occasion of Jackson Browne's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

In seventies post-Vietnam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long slow afterburn of the sixties, its heartbreak, its disappointments, its spent possibilities, better than Jackson's masterpiece, Late for the Sky.

It's just a beautiful body of work. It's essential in making sense of the times. “Before the Deluge” still gives me goose-bumps, and it raises me to cause. “Late for the Sky,” when those car doors slam at the end of the record, they still bring tears to my eye. And there was no more searching, yearning, loving music made for and about America at the time.

In this and so much of Jackson's writing, you see the slow, meticulous crafting of the songs, the thoughtfulness. Jackson was one of the first songwriters I'd met who demonstrated the value of thinking hard about what you were saying, your subject.

And here are some thoughts from Stephen Holden, who penned the original Rolling Stone album review:

Like Browne's two previous albums, Late for the Sky contains no lyric sheet. The three or four hours required to make a full transcription will, however, be well worth the effort for anyone interested in discovering lyric genius. I can't think of another writer who merges with such natural grace and fluidity his private and public personas in a voice that is morally compelling yet noncoercive.

Hopefully these testimonials will be enough to convince you to join me on the rest of this journey exploring Browne's greatest work.

The Album Cover

Let's first pause lovingly, as the listener should, with a look at the album cover. An iTunes graphic, or even a CD cover, barely does it justice. The inspiration for the visual comes from the painting “L'Empire des Lumières” by Belgian painter René Magritte. The cover art was created by photographer Bob Seidemann, after Browne showed him a poster of the Magritte painting and asked him for something similar, with an old Chevy in front of a house. The resulting graphic combines light and dark, the intimate glow of a bedroom window with a vast expanse of endless blue sky, an aging auto under a glowing streetlight, a tree with leaves fringed by sunlight. To some extent, the cover contains props that will make their appearances within some of the album's lyrics: the “stolen Chevrolet” from the “The Road and the Sky,” the sky referenced in many of the album's songs. To an even greater extent, though, these elements of the cover foreshadow the contrasts and conflicts of the album's thematic content.

Empire of Light next to Late for the Sky

The Album Title

Let's now consider the album title: “Late for the Sky.” The phrase seems to have no possible literal sense – the sky is always there, so how can one be late for it? – so it demands a more nuanced reading.

The word “late” suggests both intention and failure: one meant to make the show, but did not get there in time. It also suggests a strong sense of the temporal: timing, as they say, is everything.

The word “sky” suggests something vast and unchanging, existing beyond the bounds of normal human time. It also suggests a form of universal human aspiration, a symbol of our best intentions (especially in a year when humanity had landed on the moon only five years earlier).

Combined, the two words suggest missed opportunities, a gap between aspirations and reality, the difference between limited human abilities and limitless dreams and aspirations.

And so, in a mere four words, Browne has outlined the overall sweep of the album.

Musical Approach

Browne works with a sympathetic set of vocalists and instrumentalists here, and makes full use of their talents. The extraordinary David Lindley plays violin and guitar and, as usual, always seems to perfectly complement Browne's vocals. The general musical approach is slow and thoughtful, with Browne's music leaving lots of space for other vocalists and musicians, and allowing the listener time for appreciation of each word and phrase. With only eight tracks on the album, and an average track length of five to six minutes, Browne is here venturing beyond the typical formats for both Top 40 recording artists and folk singers. The musical accompaniment is rich and finely etched, carefully crafted to support and extend each of the songs in unique ways.

Thematic Overview

As we go through the details of the album, what we will gradually see revealed is an examination of the human cycle of innocence/experience, illusion/disillusionment, enchantment/disenchantment, birth/death, creation/dissolution. More distinctly, Browne looks at the cycle of attaching meaning to the people, places and events of one's life, and then seeing that meaning fade and disappear. And while much of Browne's earlier work spoke to very personal experiences at specific points within this cycle, and from the interior of this wheel, here Browne expands his scope, looking not only at very concrete, individual experiences along the way, but at the cycle as a whole. In doing so, he manages to evoke, not just a personal sense of the journeys of a handful of specific characters he's painted for us, but the mood of an entire generation at that particular point in time, a generation on its own journey from innocence to experience, painfully trying to transform its own fading illusions into some new sense of meaning. And, finally, Browne talks about nothing less than how this birth/death cycle might apply to the human race as a whole.

Track 1: Late for the Sky

The title track starts the album with a very personal picture, capturing a romantic pair just at the very moment of disenchantment and disillusionment. As we watch and listen, Browne painfully scapes away the patina of illusion and gradually reveals the lonely reality lying beneath.

The words here tie back to the cover art: Browne could be singing to us from the upstairs bedroom depicted there, and when he talks about tracing the lovers' steps until they vanished into the air, that infinite blue sky of the cover shows where those steps end.

But Browne's intent here, and the song's effect, is more than just portraiture: he's asking open-ended questions that have no clear answers, and that can by extension be applied to all human relationships. Did these two once love each other? Were they ever really together? If so, what happened to the love they once felt? Where did it go? At what point was the love lost? How could they go from such intimate feelings of togetherness to feelings of being so profoundly alone? And is one state more real than the other? Is the state of enchantment illusory, or is it the most profound reality that humans can know, even if it transitory?

The words had all been spoken,
And somehow the feeling still wasn't right,
And still we continued on through the night;
Tracing our steps from the beginning,
Until they vanished into the air:
Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.

Looking hard into your eyes,
There was nobody I'd ever known:
Such an empty surprise, to feel so alone.

Now for me some words come easy,
But I know that they don't mean that much,
Compared with the things that are said when lovers touch.
You never knew what I loved in you,
I don't know what you loved in me:
Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.

Awake again, I can't pretend, and I know I'm alone,
And close to the end of the feeling we've known.

How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
How long have I been dreaming I could make it right,
If I closed my eyes, and tried with all my might,
To be the one you need?

Awake again, I can't pretend, and I know I'm alone,
And close to the end of the feeling we've known.

How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
How long have I been running for that morning flight,
Through the whispered promises and the changing light
Of the bed where we both lie…
Late for the sky.

One of the things worth noting is the song's structure. This is not a typical verse/chorus pop song: Browne bends the arc of the song to reflect his meaning. The first two verses, talking about words, are slow and reflective. But when Browne asks, “How long have I been sleeping?”, the music shifts, starting to surge and rise, questing, seeking some release or resolution.

Also worthy of mention is David Lindley's beautiful, delicate, guitar work throughout the song. When Browne sings about the meaning of words compared to a lover's touch, Lindley's tender caressing of his strings seems to represent that physical dimension missing from Browne's narrative.

Although pop songs of all kinds have talked about relationships, both successful and failed, most describe the highs and the lows: few if any have chosen to so honestly focus on this moment of crumbling, to so nakedly portray the lovers still in each other's physical presence, but with the illusions about each other having been stripped away. Browne is neither romanticizing, nor demonizing, nor mourning his lover, but instead is painfully showing what's left when those emotional overlays are removed.

Part of Browne's achievement here lies in his avoidance of the histrionics that usually accompany failing relationships. There is no self-pity, no condemnation, no harsh words, slamming doors or fights. The song, as well as the story it tells, betray an absence of any of these mechanisms we usually use to distance ourselves from the emptiness at the core of these situations. By avoiding these, Browne accomplishes the difficult task of bringing us right to the heart of the loss he feels, and lets us feel it with him, rather than simply telling us about it.

By avoiding use of these other dramatic elements, Browne is also able to focus much more clearly on the heart of the matter: the loss of meaning that the two once attached to each other and their relationship. In fact, the primary scene painted by the song is one of people going through the motions of a relationship, yet bereft of any of the usual meaning associated with such actions. This opening scene clearly sets the stage for the issues of enchantment and disenchantment that will be explored through the rest of the album.

Track 2: Fountain of Sorrow

After starting by taking us with him to a very specific point in the arc of a failing relationship, Browne now looks back on this or another relationship from a greater philosophical distance, alternately contrasting earlier feelings with later apprehensions.

Let's see how he starts.

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.

We start with a drawer full of old photos: flat images capturing moments from the past. But then, instead of the photographer taking the pictures, he is taken by one of his photos, one that is more than just a two-dimensional image, but captures some inner spirit of its subject, the person being addressed by the singer. And although the photo takes the subject by surprise, with childish laughter coming from her mouth, there is also a wisp of sadness in her eyes.

Note already all the opposing tensions introduced in this so far very simple story of photos being taken: appearance vs. substance, observer vs. observed, artifice vs. reality, forward vs. backwards, past vs. present, innocence vs. experience, childhood vs. adulthood, joy vs. sorrow.

Now the things that I remember
Seem so distant and so small,
Though it hasn't really
Been that long a time.
What I was seeing wasn't
What was happening at all,
Although for a while
Our path did seem to climb.

When you see through love's illusions,
There lies the danger;
And your perfect lover
Just looks like a perfect fool:
So you go running off
In search of a perfect stranger,
While the loneliness seems to
Spring from your life,
Like a fountain from a pool.

Now the singer focuses more specifically on illusion vs. reality. He acknowledges that what he once thought he was seeing between the two of them wasn't real. But then he talks about the danger of seeing through love's illusions, turning a perfect lover into a perfect fool, and causing the singer to chase after a perfect stranger, evoking three very different sorts of perfection, and perhaps suggesting that the idea of perfection is itself illusory. And then he introduces the image from the song's title, of a fountain of sorrow, bringing a constant flow of loneliness to the surface from some deep wellspring below.

But now, having acknowledged the existence of this fountain, Browne begins to reconcile the song's contrasting opposites.

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 all right.
And it's good to see
Your smiling face tonight.

The fountain now becomes a source of light as well as sorrow, and the singer's subject is now out of hiding and smiling, and the singer and his subject are happily reunited.

Browne now delivers a clear-eyed assessment of their situation.

Now for you and me it may not be,
That hard to reach our dreams.
But that magic feeling never seems to last.
And while the future's there for anyone to change,
Still you know it seems…
It would be easier sometimes
To change the past.

Here Browne steps back from any particular player in the drama, or any particular act in the play, and instead gives us a view of the cycle as a whole: innocence/experience, illusion/disillusionment, freedom/entrapment.

Now Browne looks at his own situation, realizing he is on a path of growing awareness and wisdom.

I'm just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you,
In my lessons at love's pain and heartache school –
Where if you feel too free
And you need something to remind you,
There's this loneliness
Springing up from your life,
Like a fountain from a pool.

Now he repeats his earlier lines, again joining this image of a fountain of sorrow to the present joyous connection between singer and subject.

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 all right,
And it's good to see
Your smiling face tonight.

Now the music slows almost to a stop, with just piano and bass playing slowly, as if bringing the song to a close. But then, just when we think it might be over, the other musicians join in again.

Now we have the chorus repeated, but with additional words.

Fountain of sorrow,
Fountain of light:
You've known that hollow sound
Oof your own steps in flight.
You've had to struggle,
You've had to fight,
To keep understanding
And compassion in sight.
You could be laughing at me,
You've got the right,
But you go on smiling,
So clear and so bright…!

The music here is warm, buoyant and radiant as Browne sings the final words of joy and reconciliation, of warmth and connection and acceptance.

Track 3: Farther On

This is a beautiful, contemplative song featuring some piercingly sweet guitar work from David Lindley.

Browne starts by reflecting on a lonely childhood filled with fantasies.

In my early years I hid my tears
And passed my days alone.
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness,
My dreams like nets were thrown,
To catch the love that I'd heard of
In books and films and songs:
Now there's a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs.

But, interestingly, Browne the adult is not trying to distance himself from this past, but instead is seemingly embracing it as part of his current self.

Still I look for the beauty in songs
To fill my head and lead me on,
Though my dreams have come up torn and empty,
As many times as love has come and gone.

Now he reflects on those with whom he shared his dreams and schemes, acknowledging the impracticality of his visions.

To those gentle ones my memory runs,
To the laughter we shared at the meals.
I filled their kitchens and living rooms
With my schemes and my broken wheels.
It was never clear how far or near
The gates to my citadel lay;
They were cutting from stone some dreams of their own
But they listened to mine anyway.

And now, a rather startling admission from a highly articulate wordsmith:

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say.
It could be I've lost my way:
Though I keep a watch over the distance,
Heaven's no closer than it was yesterday.

And now a beautifully poetic word painting in which Browne acknowledges that the angels are older, and yet he is still accompanied by them, rather than flesh and blood human beings.

And the angels are older:
They know not to wait up for the sun.
They look over my shoulder
At the maps and the drawings of the journey I've begun.

And now we learn that Browne, despite his self-knowledge gained by reflecting on his past, is still pursuing a vision in the distance.

Now the distance leads me farther on,
Though the reasons I once had are gone.
I keep thinking I'll find what I'm looking for
In the sand beneath the dawn.

And now we conclude with Browne firmly committed to continuing the pursuit of his beautiful visions, still moving farther on.

But the angels are older
They can see that the sun's setting fast
They look over my shoulder
At the vision of paradise contained in the light of the past
And they lay down behind me
To sleep beside the road till the morning has come
Where they know they will find me
With my maps and my faith in the distance
Moving farther on.

This is a remarkable song because, unlike most works contrasting youthful innocence vs. age and experience, this is not a story of disillusionment: quite to the contrary, it is a firm commitment to continuing illusion, to a continued pursuit of what I would call enchantment. Despite the evident tension between dreams and reality, Browne here admits that he has no intention of settling for mere reality, no matter how many times his dreams have come up torn and empty, and no matter how much older the angels seem to be.

Track 4: The Late Show

This song closes out the original side one of the album. As such, it's a bit of a place-holder, touching on and carrying forward several of the album's themes and symbols, but deferring any strong resolutions until side two.

It's also a bit experimental in its construction, with a recurring, often overlapping, vocal chorus, sometimes echoing Browne's words, at other times extending his thoughts. And then there are those percussive door slams at the end of the track. These unusual elements perhaps offer a couple of reasons why Browne has rarely performed this song in his live shows.

Note that the song title plays with the word “late,” but the word and title appear nowhere within the song's lyrics. Today we think of The Late Show as a late-night talk show, but back when this song was written – before cable, before Netflix – the phrase might have more typically referred to the old black-and-white movies that aired on broadcast television channels during the hours when most people were asleep.

The singer starts with some general observations and reflections on the difficulty of having close relationships.

Everyone I've ever known has wished me well.
Anyway that's how it seems, it's hard to tell.
Maybe people only ask you how you're doing
'cause that's easier than letting on how little they could care.
But when you know that you've got a real friend somewhere,
Suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear.

Now he touches on the tension between the real and the ideal, the difficulty of breaking out of a lonely space, and the inadequacy of words.

Now to see things clear, it's hard enough I know;
While you're waiting for reality to show –
Without dreaming of the perfect love,
And holding it so far above,
That if you stumbled onto someone real, you'd never know.
(you'd never know)
You could be with somebody who is lonely too
(sometimes it doesn't show)
He might be trying to get across to you
(words can be so slow)
When your own emptiness is all that's getting through,
There comes a point when you're not sure why you're still talking:
I passed that point long ago.
(long ago)
I'm so tired of all this circling,
And all these glimpses of the end.
(you know it's useless to pretend)
That's all the voices say:
"you'll go right on circling
Until you've found some kind of friend".

But now the song turns from generalities towards an encounter with an actual flesh-and-blood person, apparently a woman, in a bar, or at a party.

I saw you through the laughter and the noise.
You were talking with the soldiers and the boys:
While they scuffled for your weary smiles,
I thought of all the empty miles,
And the years that I've spent looking for your eyes.
(looking for your eyes)
And now I'm sitting here wondering what to say
(that you might recognize)
Afraid that all these words might scare you away
(and break through the disguise)
No one ever talks about their feelings anyway,
Without dressing them in dreams and laughter –
I guess it's just too painful otherwise.

And now Browne wraps things up by setting an imaginary scene – both for us, as listeners, and for the woman he has been trying to meet – a scene that sounds very close to the one pictured on the album cover.

It's like you're standing in the window
Of a house nobody lives in,
And I'm sitting in a car across the way.
(let's just say)
It's an early model Chevrolet
(let's just say)
It's a warm and windy day,
You go and pack your sorrow –
The trash man comes tomorrow –
Leave it at the curb and we'll just roll away.

And so we have a tidy finish to the song – a Hollywood ending, if you will – even if admittedly and intentionally contrived.

Browne pulls off several neat tricks here, and the song plays a definite role in the construction of the album, and it's moving music being played. On the other hand, the song as a singular work lacks any particular thematic or narrative center, and this may be another reason why it is infrequently heard in live shows, and is rarely served up by streaming services.

Track 5: The Road and the Sky

This is the song that opens the second side of the original album, and it is also the central linchpin for the varied themes of the album, the recording that brings together all the album's various elements and places them in relationship to one another.

The first thing to note is that, despite the sorrow and tragedy running through the album, this is an upbeat song, a rocker, one filled with a sense of lunatic optimism. David Lindley's slide guitar, elsewhere used with haunting restraint, here gets amped up, propelling Browne's vocals along at a breakneck pace.

The lyrics start with clearly symbolic intent, echoing the album's title.

When we come to the place
Where the road and the sky collide,
Throw me over the edge,
And let my spirit glide.

Here Browne quickly takes up the major thematic conflict of the album, and just as quickly states his position unequivocally: when stark realities conflict with idealistic aspirations, he seems to be saying, I'll take the idealistic aspirations every time.

The next four lines candidly reveal some of Browne's motivation for such a decision.

They told me I was going to
Have to work for a living,
But all I want to do is ride.
I don't care where we're going from here,
Honey, you decide.

The next verse again takes up the issues of dreams vs. reality.

Well I spend my time at the
Bottom of a wishing well,
And I can hear my dreams
Singing clear as a bell.
I used to know where they ended
And the world began,
But now it's getting hard to tell:
I could be just around the corner from heaven
Or a mile from hell.

Here Browne amplifies the depth of his self-knowledge referenced in the first verse, freely admitting that he's not sure he can any longer tell dreams from reality, or whether his pursuit of these dreams is bringing him closer to salvation or damnation. (And an interesting implication of his image, located at the bottom of a well, is that it's one of the few places one can imagine where all you can see is sky.)

But now we finally get to the chorus, and the central image of the song and, perhaps, of the album. Seemingly indicating knowledge of his own shortcomings, the pace of the song slows, with Browne singing in a tone more confessional than boastful, over background cowbell percussion that sounds like the stuttering engine of an aging vehicle that may fail at any moment.

I'm just rolling away from yesterday,
Behind the wheel of a stolen Chevrolet.
I'm going to get a little higher,
And see if I can hot-wire reality.

Continuing the imagery that ended the first verse, Browne here constructs, in four lines, the ultimate image of rock liberation. Building on the twin legacies of Chuck Berry and Jack Kerouac, Browne takes to the road in another automobile, fleeing the past and ready for the future, whatever it may bring, getting a little higher (closer to the sky) as he goes, and fully prepared to encounter reality, commandeer it, and incorporate it in his wild ride.

Now comes the final verse.

Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead?
They're going to wash this planet clean like the Bible said.
Now you can hold on steady and try to be ready,
But everybody's going to get wet.
Don't think it won't happen just because it hasn't happened yet.

Notice that Browne has here just delivered on the promise made in the chorus. He starts by pointing out, to his listener/companion, the presence of some very real dark clouds occupying the sky ahead. This is, presumably, a chunk of reality. But now, he “hot-wires” that reality: he attaches meaning to it, he builds a story around it, he uses it for his own purpose. And then he ends with words expressing the sentiment of any true visionary, any storyteller: “Don't think it won't happen just because it hasn't happened yet.”

One could certainly question whether this song is really the thematic center of the album, since it seems to contradict or at least reduce in significance the dirgeful disillusionment expressed in much of the rest of the album's content. But I view the song this way for several reasons.

  • Its placement at the center of the album, at its core, so to speak.
  • Its references to the Sky, clearly one of the major symbols used throughout the album.
  • Its twin inclusion of both the Chevrolet and the Sky from the album cover.
  • Its distance from its subject matter: this is the song that is least dependent on concrete, personal details, and hence most clearly allegorical.
  • The breadth of its scope. At its most narrow, the album examines particular characters, at particular points in their own personal cycles of enchantment/disenchantment. Stepping back a little farther, parts of the album look at this cycle as a whole. But this song not only does that, but takes the perspective of the artist, the person writing us these songs and telling us these tales, and examines his role as not only the enchanted, but the enchanter: the person trying to hot-wire reality. Looking at all the perspectives we will find in the album, it is this one that seems the most comprehensive.

Track 6: For a Dancer

Where “The Road and the Sky” is the album's manic rocker, celebrating the ups and downs of the romantic quest, “For a Dancer” is its quiet heart, examining the meaning of death.

I find this track remarkable in that it combines a very personal tale of loss with an examination of the meaning of physical death, and does justice to both.

While songwriters are practiced at dealing with the subject of love, singing about death is a much more difficult task. Browne succeeds here by combining specific and personal details with a very clear and unusual perspective.

The recording begins with just Jackson's voice and piano, singing slowly and thoughtfully.

Keep a fire burning in your eye.
Pay attention to the open sky.
You never know what will be coming down.

Note Browne's oblique approach to his subject, as well as another usage of the sky as a symbol, this time in the sense of a prime mover from which events emerge, an infinite and unforgiving source of beginnings and endings.

Now Browne moves closer to the central event of the song.

I don't remember losing track of you.
You were always dancing in and out of view.
I must have thought you'd always be around,
Always keeping things real by playing the clown.
Now you're nowhere to be found.

He continues his oblique approach, talking at first only about “losing track” of someone. Also, note that he is singing to the person he has lost, as if the dancer were in some sense still present in his life. In these few lines he also deftly introduces the theme of dancing, and uses the term in the sense of moving closer and farther away, this playful use of the term resonating with the image of the dancer playing the clown. Finally, though, Browne states that she is nowhere to be found, the sombre tone of this final line suggesting her physical death.

Doug Haywood's bass joins Browne on “found,” the last word of the last line, and begins an eloquent, questioning dialogue with Browne's piano. Now drums join them as well at the beginning of the next verse, accelerating the pace of the song and providing it with a more regular forward movement, somewhat counteracting the direct introduction of the song's subject.

I don't know what happens when people die.
Can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try.
It's like a song I can hear,
Playing right in my ear,
That I can't sing:
I can't help listening.

Note how Browne pulls back from the direct examination of the dancer's death, into a more general discussion of the subject, thus avoiding an immersion into pathos. His matter-of-fact statement that he doesn't know what happens when people die catches us a bit off-guard, and pulls us into more emotionally neutral territory, perfectly setting us up for the surprise and searing depth of the simile that follows, comparing death to an elusive tune that the singer can hear but not reproduce.

Now Browne returns to the personal tale, standing at graveside as his friend is lowered into her grave. As you listen, note that the singer is now joined by additional musicians and background singers, creating a sense of a shared community, serving the same function in the song as friends and family might at an actual service, helping to reduce our sense of loss by reminding us of those we still have by our side.

And I can't help feeling stupid standing 'round,
Crying as they ease you down,
'Cause I know that you'd rather we were dancing:
Dancing our sorrow away,
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play.
(There's nothing you can do about it anyway.)

Here, again, Browne skirts any typical treatment of his subject matter, for though he reports his tears, the emotion he comments on is of feeling stupid. Still addressing the lost dancer, he now talks of dancing directly, and as a way of finding joyful purpose despite the vagaries of life. Expressing this joy, his voice surges on the last line, soaring above the instruments.

As the musical group starts the next verse, they do so with a sense of joy and unison, banding together to confront the darkness.

Just do the steps that you've been shown,
By everyone you've ever known,
Until the dance becomes your very own,
No matter how close to yours
Another's steps have grown:
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone.

Here it is almost as if the dancer is speaking to the singer, rather than the other way around. The dancer's message emphasizes both the community in which we grow, and that nurtures us, as well as the individuality of each person's expression within that community, and the ultimate isolation wrought by death.

Note how the music matches the words on the last line, with the background singers growing quiet, leaving Browne to sing those words alone.

David Lindley's violin plays now, finally giving voice to the sadness Browne has avoided directly confronting with his words, yet at the same time dancing himself, as if expressing the spirit of the lost dancer, as well as those who mourn her passing.

With Lindley now having touched the tragic core of the singer's tale, Browne is now freed to step back and take a broader view.

Keep a fire for the human race.
Let your prayers go drifting into space.
You never know what will be coming down.

Note how the words here mirror the first three lines that started the song, starting with “Keep a fire” and ending with “You never know what will be coming down.” Yet something has changed, for the singer is no longer alone, but is accompanied by others this time around, both instrumentalists and singers. At the same time, his view is broader, taking the perspective of the human race as a whole, in contrast to the individual lives of the singer and the dancer with which he started.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near…
Just as easily it could all disappear,
Along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around,
(The world keeps turning around and around).
Go on and make a joyful sound.

Here Browne speaks directly to the album's thematic core, talking about our need to create meaning for ourselves and others, even if that meaning has no ultimate reality. Again, as in “The Road and the Sky,” Browne clearly chooses a side, chooses joy and meaning and intention, despite their lack of permanence, despite the absence of any indication that these arise from any source other than the human spirit itself.

Browne and company now launch triumphantly into the final verse, again seemingly expressing a message from the missing dancer.

Into a dancer you have grown,
From a seed somebody else has thrown:
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own,
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go,
May lie a reason you were alive,
But you'll never know.

So now the song concludes with the singer having himself become a dancer. Now we can see that the dramatic movement of the song has not been into death, but a transcendence of death, with the lost dancer passing something on to the singer who remains behind. The song ends not with a death but with a birth, as if the singer has emerged from a chrysalis. He now knows what it means to dance, to create meaning through his movements, even though the universe may never acknowledge that meaning.

Musically, the song ends with piano, bass, organ and violin dancing together one last time before bringing the track to a close.

I can't think of another song that is at the same time so sombre and so joyous, that deals with such a tragic event and at the same time delivers such a sense of overarching meaning and purpose, that so skillfully manages to evoke the tragedy and finality of death, yet places that death in a larger context, without resorting to some divine deus ex machina as the source of that context.

This song is just a magnificent achievement.

Track 7: Walking Slow

This is a fun, upbeat number: just the thing to give us some casual good times before the more serious closer of Track 8: Before the Deluge.

Note that, despite the light tone of the recording, and the slight ambitions of the lyrics, the song is much more than just filler.

Let's follow along with Browne's journey on this track.

Walking slow down the avenue
Through my old neighborhood.
Don't know why I'm happy –
I've got no reason to feel this good.
Maybe it's because I'm all alone
And I've got no place to go;
And everywhere I look I see
Another person I'll never know.

I got a thing or two to say
Before I walk on by:
I'm feeling good today.
But if die a little farther along,
I'm trusting everyone to carry on.

Pretty little girl
Running up and down the street with no shoes on.
I got a pretty little girl of my own at home.
Sometimes we forget we love each other
And we fight for no reason –
I don't know what I'll do if she ever leaves me alone.

I got a thing or two to say
Before I walk on by:
I'm feelin' good today.
But if I die a little farther along,
I'm trustin' everyone to carry on.

I'm puttin' down my left foot.
I'm puttin' down my right foot.

I got a thing or two to say
Before I walk on by:
I'm feelin' good today.
But if I die a little farther along,
I'm trusting everyone to carry on.

This song offers some remarkable balance within the album. Compared to the complex problems and tensions explored in many of the other songs, here Browne seems to be saying, hey, it's alright just to walk down the street with no particular place to go and no companions, and just enjoy yourself. And it's ok to enjoy a simple romantic relationship that has its ups and downs. And it's ok to combine a knowledge of our own mortality with a simple sense that we're part of a human tradition, and the weight of the world is not all ours to bear alone.

If just viewed by itself, this song is almost a throw-away. But when placed within its rightful context within the album, it performs a vital function, filling out the overall sense of the whole.

Track 8: Before the Deluge

This is the closing song of the album, the track that Browne leaves us with.

This is a complex piece thematically. Rather than commenting on one section at a time, let's just start by looking at the lyrics as a whole (accompanied by the music, of course).

Some of them were dreamers,
And some of them were fools,
Who were making plans and thinking of the future.
With the energy of the innocent,
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature.

While the sand slipped through the opening,
And their hands reached for the golden ring,
When their hearts they turned to each other's hearts for refuge
In the troubled years that came before the deluge.

Some of them knew pleasure,
And some of them knew pain,
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered.
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain,
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered.

And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge.

Let the music keep our spirits high…
Let the buildings keep our children dry,
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by,
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky.

Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power.
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour.

And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived.
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge,
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge.

Let the music keep our spirits high,
Let the buildings keep our children dry,
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by,
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky.

So what can we observe about this song?

First, note that it seems to spell out in detail an event first alluded to in the closing of Track 5: The Road and the Sky.

Next, we can note that the events in the song spell out a sort of allegory that parallels, in action and feeling, much of what happened to Browne's generation in the late sixties and early seventies. So while Browne doesn't speak of specific events, his story outlines the overall arc of youthful consciousness during this period: a desire to experience a simpler, more holistic, relationship with nature; anger at the military-industrial complex; hopeful innocence followed by resignation and disillusionment; a naïve spreading of wings with insufficient concern for future consequences.

Browne's accomplishment here is hard to overstate: he's not just recounting facts and dates, he's not telling us what happened to specific people – rather, he's singing us a tale that allows us to feel intensely what it was like to live through this period.

And of course, when listening to Browne's song, it brings to mind other works of narrative fiction that touch on similar themes, such as Overstory, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Richard Powers, and Arcadia, the novel by Lauren Groff.

And then, finally, there's the lovely chorus with which the song and album end.

Let the music keep our spirits high.

The first line reminds us of the importance of art and dreams and enchantment.

Let the buildings keep our children dry.

The next line reminds us of the importance of practical necessities, as well as the reponsibilities that come once we've outgrown our own childhoods.

Let creation reveal its secrets by and by…

The third line reminds us that this state of not knowing in which we all live, this experience of mystery, is not a problem to be solved, not a question to be answered, but one of the most profound and enduring elements of our human existence.

When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky.

And then this final line returns us to the mystery with which we began our journey: the light and the sky from the album cover, the light lost by the couple in the opening song, “Late for the Sky,” the song playing in the singer's ear in “For a Dancer.”

In Summary

What a beautiful album, what an amazing achievement, what a powerful work of art.

At the beginning of the sixties, and before, popular music was focused on individual songs and individual tracks: hit singles, if you will.

As rock artists grew in artistic maturity in the latter half of the sixties, they began to conceive of their albums as artistic wholes, rather than a few hit singles accompanied by enough filler to pad out an LP.

Many of these albums relied on a consistent sound and approach to the music as their unifying elements: think of The Beatles' Revolver.

Others relied on a consistent sound and a consistent approach to their lyrics and selection of subject matter: think of Beggar's Banquet by The Rolling Stones, or Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.

A few artists tried to create albums as “rock operas,” with some limited success.

What very few ever accomplished, though, was to create an album such as Late for the Sky, in which the individual tracks don't just feel like they belong together, but actually fit together to make a lyrical whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I think Springsteen got it right when he referred to this album as a “masterpiece,” and Stephen Holden got it right in his original review of this album for Rolling Stone when he referred to Browne's “lyric genius.” If later pop revisionism somehow decided that the tunes weren't catchy enough, the lyrics required too much thought, or the sales figures weren't impressive enough, then I think the fault is more in the ears and minds of the critics than in the material itself.

This album is a touchstone for me. A framed print of Bob Seidemann's cover art hangs in my living room. I have many songs I love, many recordings of those songs, many albums. And I return to these, not just out of familiarity, or to use as background music, but because they provide me with a deep sense of meaning about the life I have lived, the life I am still living, and the lives of those around me. But even among these pieces of art, this album stands out for me, as the most unified and coherent and meaningful album in my collection.

I hope you find as much joy and meaning in it as I do.

Next: The Kinks