I have a copy of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, but to be fair, this is my wife’s album. Prior to about ten years ago I was familiar with some of the songs, but the work as a whole. It really wouldn’t be fair to me to give a critical review of the record, but there’s still a discussion to be had.
Released in 1977 and easily Browne’s most successful album in terms of sales, Running on Empty is a travelogue, recorded by, of, and for the road in concert halls, hotel rooms, and on tour buses. It sounds lonely and achey, like an album born under such conditions should. Melancholy pianos set a persistent tone, driven home by echoes that betray the stillness of rooms both empty and full, and the loneliness that can accompany each.
As a concept album it works rather well, as Running never veers from its life-on-the-road framework and only occasionally (“Shaky Town”) descends into self-parody. That being said, it’s a time capsule piece of music, inextricably tied to late 70’s rock excess and the lifestyle of a working musician and those working for him, which somewhat leaves the album feeling dated. But as a 10-song postcard from the era it holds up fine.
Running on Empty‘s most useful application is where my association with it comes in to play. As I said earlier, this is my wife’s album and one she clings to dearly, as for her it serves as a link to her father and the cusp of her consciousness. She introduced me to it on roadtrips around the Southeast and to her family roots in Iowa. The first few times she threw it in, the opening chords of the title track solicited a quiet cringe; it usually just wasn’t what I was in the mood for. But over time I began to appreciate the album as a wonderful backdrop for the open road — it actually sounds better the more sparse the road becomes and the later the hour gets. I have a similar affection for the works of Bob Seger due to an old college roommate; I only want to hear Bob on the road and out in the country.
Listening to it right now at a desk, I kinda wish I was in Iowa. Or better yet, on the way there.