Song of the Day #4,683: ‘Running On Empty’ – Jackson Browne

The Jackson Browne album people know best, and the one that has sold more than any other by far, is the one least representative of his overall output.

1977’s Running on Empty, Browne’s fifth release, is a concept record about life on the road, with all of its tracks recorded during live shows or in hotel rooms, buses or backstage. Browne has solo writing credits on only two songs (the two best, as it turns out) and four are covers. The mood and style of this album is a long way from the cerebral folk rock of his earlier releases.

Running on Empty might be atypical for Browne, but it’s brilliant. It captures the loneliness and mundanity of the road so well, and in closing track ‘The Load Out,’ brings the audience’s role into the mix in a way that makes the whole thing feel almost magical.

The title track is one of my favorite Jackson Browne songs, as is ‘You Love the Thunder’ (those are the two he wrote on his own). Other standouts include a cover of Danny O’Keefe’s ‘The Road’ and the soulful ‘Love Needs a Heart.’ ‘Cocaine,’ ‘Shaky Town’ and ‘Nothing But Time’ ooze the casual, drunken vibe of a bunch of guys jamming in a hotel room.

This album might not have much in common with its four predecessors, but it was a splendid way to close out a 70s output on a par with Browne’s celebrated peers.

Browne’s early output reminds me very much of Joni Mitchell’s, in fact. They both started out with a modest debut that hinted at great things to come, then released four albums worthy of being called classics.

We saw what happened to Mitchell after that, and I hope Browne won’t suffer the same fate. Next week we’ll move into the 80s and find out if Browne managed to escape the curse that befell so many successful 70s songwriters.

[Verse 1]
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
’65, I was 17 and running up 101
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I’m running behind

[Verse 2]
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
’69, I was 21 and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I’m running behind

Everyone I know, everywhere I go
People need some reason to believe
I don’t know about anyone but me
If it takes all night, that’ll be all right
If I can get you to smile before I leave

[Verse 3]
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running, too

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I’m running behind

[Verse 4]
Honey, you really tempt me
You know the way you look so kind
I’d love to stick around but I’m running behind
(Running on)
You know I don’t even know what I’m hoping to find
(Running blind)
Running into the sun but I’m running behind

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,683: ‘Running On Empty’ – Jackson Browne

  1. Amy says:

    “The Load Out” is a song I never tire of; no matter how well I know its story, it gets me every time. As you might imagine, it was particularly magical to listen to in concert. 💗.

    I’ve always loved today’s SOTD, and it only grew on me when Daniel performed it with the band, providing me with that many more opportunities to enjoy its whole vibe. I’m not sure that I’ve listened to a JB album other than “Lives in the Balance” in its entirety, so hearing about the songs that surround my favorites is wonderful.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    This was one of the first albums I owned, having picked it up sometime in the mid to late 80s. I pretty much agree with all you have said. This is a great, easy listen from start to finish.

    As for the 80s, I am curious how you will feel about his work in that decade as Browne became increasingly political, which is something I know you generally don’t like. However, for me, Browne put out some of his greatest albums in the 80s, including Lawyers in Love and Lives in the Balance. Even if you are less enthused by the subject matter, unlike Mitchell, Browne never lost his signature sound, style or (literally) his voice. And he thankfully avoided the foray into disco, punk, jazz, electronica or other flavors of the day that entrapped other 70s artists with varying degrees of enlightenment but mostly embarrassment. Like some of the 80s success stories such as Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and David Byrne, Brown did lean into reggae and world music a bit, but never so much that the music lost his essence.

    So, I’m looking forward to next week!

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