More than just a “road” album, probably Jackson’s most listenable overall effort. Some of his work, graceful and melodic though it may be, is so composed that it can get wearying. Running On Empty feels more direct and immediate, recorded with all the palpable chemistry of a crack live band. And some of it was recorded on a tour bus in New Jersey! Like a Redman mixtape!
The title track is a classic, a bombastic tune with a simple riff and autobiographical lyrics that feel more like an elegy than a celebration. It’s about the big questions on the cusp of real maturity, looking back on the careless adventures of youth. A fine start to this surprisingly thoughtful album, with David Lindley’s distinctive guitar work that characterizes this period. I still find myself looking forward to the folky balladry on the rest of Side One: “The Road” isn’t just a standard “life on the road” song either, despite its wistful sound and lyrical trappings. “And when you stop to let ’em know/That you got it down/It’s just another town along the road” – I hear an evocation of life’s constant demands. Every personal or professional struggle, every hard day of work: it’s just another town along the road. Rock music can be spiritual if you listen closely enough. “You Love The Thunder” feels more like a filler track, which spiritually speaking makes it akin to say Michea in the Old Testament, just really filling up space in between the big showpieces. “Rosie” is about marriage, fidelity – what’s more biblical than that? Actually, that might not be so biblical (they say Abraham put up David Lee Roth numbers on the old “road”) as it is merely conventional, but it’s a sweet song. Some engaging honesty in the narrative as well, in the way he loses a groupie to the drummer (apparently Jackson didn’t run as tight an operation as Van Halen or Abraham) and returns to his familiar lover: “Looks like it’s me and you again tonight Rosie.” “Cocaine,” apparently recorded in a “room 124 at the Holiday Inn,” is a fantastic little cover of the traditional folk blues. A neat fiddle accompanies the simple acoustic track and self-effacing lyrical additions (“Cocaine – you look like you could be forty-five”). Glenn Frey is given writing credit on this one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Walsh contributed a line or two (so to speak). I could listen to a whole album of these sort of simply recorded but elegantly performed acoustic songs from this band – so listen up record companies and let’s put out a whole album from the Holiday Inn hotel room sessions in ’77. C’mon, the kids will buy it!
“Shaky Town” sounds like Little Feat but isn’t, although Lowell George is given some credit for “Love Needs A Heart.” “Nothing But Time” was recorded “on a bus somewhere in New Jersey,” and from the sound I would guess they were somewhere near Teaneck. Or it could be Belmar, it’s a little hard to hear over the simple shuffling blues. I don’t care for this track as much as “Cocaine,” so I wouldn’t be as eager to purchase a “Jackson Browne Live On A Bus Somewhere In New Jersey ’77” album as I would the hotel one, but it’s cool the way these atmospheric recordings were included. I love the energy and enthusiasm on these tracks, with this group of talented musicians playing music for the pure enjoyment. That’s precisely what “The Load-Out” is all about, the second classic of the album and the real centerpiece song of Side Two. The live recording captures the magical spontaneity of the lyric itself, all about the simple joys of the team and the crowd that keeps the weary band inspired. The bridge into the cover of “Stay” is another brilliant little moment, the sort that can be found all over the rich performances on this album.
Running On Empty really holds up, resonating more than a standard “rockers on the road” album in the way it suggests a growing acceptance of more mature themes. It’s about moving forward, celebrating simple joys. Love, marriage, music, New Jersey, cocaine – what’s more spiritual than all of that?