Even though he enjoyed earlier success, Jackson Browne’s fourth studio album was first the to crack the Billboard Top Ten.
It is clear, however, that The Pretender did not get there simply on its own, or simply by being catchy.
Browne’s prior albums Jackson Browne, For Everyman and Late for the Sky, had each produced hit songs and were more or less well received by fans and critics alike. No doubt Browne’s earlier success helped The Pretender crack the Top Ten.
The Pretender marks no radical difference in Browne’s style, but it is clearly portrays a darker worldview. Released in 1976, The Pretender followed the suicide of Browne’s first wife, Phyllis Major. Hence the darker worldview. There are moments of hope, but overall the album is conflicted, which is most likely how Browne was feeling through the creation of The Pretender.
“The Fuse” sonically and lyrically is point in case of the conflicted argument. Just compare the beginning to the “yeahs” at 4:00. At the end you wonder if the voice in the song really wants to hear “the sound of the waters lapping on a higher ground, of the children laughing” because “the fuse is burning.” It’s not clear if the fuse burning is a promise or a menace. I guess ambiguity is a good thing sometimes.
“The Only Child” features a wise, yet torn message to a son. Most of the sage advice is tender, but Browne suggests his son “let his illusions last until they shatter” and tells him “whatever you might hope to find among the thoughts that crowd your mind, there won’t be many that ever really matter.” The song ends with Browne singing, “Take good care of each other,” which is all good in itself, but is he still talking to the son or has his mind wandered.
Not surprisingly, most of the songs deal with love. What stands out most is that even when Browne is at his most tender, he seems distant and unable to accept it. Even the most light-hearted song, “Linda Paloma” is characterized more by visions of disappearing love than anything that could possibly last.
“Your Bright Baby Blues” promises more, yet still we have “no matter how far I run, I can’t seem to get away from me.” I don’t think you need to look much further than the title of “Here Come Those Tears Again” to know the theme remains. And if you listen to “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” and can’t tell the man is sad, go get help.
“The Pretender” the album’s last and title track remains the most interesting. In a way, it is clear that Browne’s greatest ambition for the album was to “get up and do it again.”
That is not to say that the album is uninspired. I would imagine that after your wife commits suicide just doing that would seem impossible. In the final track, however, Browne portrays a character going through the motions – a character whom is happy to play the part of “the happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender.”
The social commentary subtext others have read into the song (that Browne is commenting on the frustration and hopelessness of the working class and suburbanites) is not without foundation; however, I take it more as a portrait of a man in the aftermath of tragedy, grappling with what his desires to escape and pretend and move on all mean.