The Pretender (1976)
I’ve denied my eyes sleep for around an hour pouring through this album. It wouldn’t be fair to claim that this is one of the best albums of all time, though it is amazing. I don’t think I would even say that it’s Browne’s finest. The Pretender serves best to offer insight into a particular phase in Browne’s life and the emotions of a people lost in the 70s.
When you first fire up The Pretender, prepare to be greeted by a delightfully written manifesto. Browne begins the record with a brief introduction to his ideology. Strong themes of pain and loliness can be found throughout the album; far more interesting is the way Browne deals with these themes. Talks of loneliness are closley followed with a sense of the ability to overcome. Feelings of hopelessness are promptly answered with the affirmation that life’s too short for such unpleasantness. Even Browne’s band echo these sentiments through their music. “The Fuse,” The Pretender’s opening track pulses with what can only be described as a hopeful, pulsating, disco base. What may seem as a mere backing track, allows “The Fuse” to use music to surpass the lyrics. Through the instruments, Browne says much more than he does through words.
The Pretender was not the most important thing that happened in Jackson Browne’s life in 1976. In March of that year Phyllis Major, Browne’s first wife, committed suicide. He struggles with this openly through much of the album. Perhaps one of the most weighty signatures of Major’s suicide lies in the song “The Only Child.” Browne advises his son that when he meets someone who understands him, to “take good care of each other.” In some songs Browne doesn’t deal with the suicide directly, but the presence of idea is still felt. For instance, in “Here Come Those Tears Again” Browne mentions, “Here come those tears again … just when I was going to make it through another night without missing you.”
The most precious gem this album has to offer lies at the end. “The Pretender,” the album’s title track, proves to be some of Browne’s most insightful work. In one track, the artist draws on the death of his wife, the power of love, and the lost direction felt by a generation of hopefuls in the 60s to paint a picture of a corporate commuter’s life. Phrases like “in the shade of the freeway” make me smile with Browne as he describes the mindset of someone who’s forgotten who he was. In fact, I don’t believe that even Browne himself escapes his own criticism. In response to the young man who “started out so young and strong only to surrender,” he replies “I’m going to be a happy idiot.” After all of the personal tragedy and corporate lostness Browne feels, he still believes in the power of love, not as a solution … but a distraction.
The albums closes with the lyrics “Say a prayer for The Pretender / Are you there for The Pretender” fading into obscurity. We would do well to remember that we are indeed pretending. And if we remember that we too are pretenders, we might remember what we were before.