Jackson Browne

Running on Empty

Composed by Jackson Browne

Song Review by

"Running on Empty" was the lead-off track and title song of Jackson Browne's fifth album, released in December 1977. Browne's concept for this live album differed from that of the usual live record, which contains concert versions of an artist's previously released songs and is, in essence, a profit-taking effort. Not Running on Empty, which consisted entirely of songs Browne had not recorded before and which was a thematic collection of songs about life on tour. It was a very different kind of record for Browne, a studio perfectionist who previously had recorded his own sole compositions almost exclusively. Running on Empty contained covers and songs co-written by members of the band and even the road crew. It was a less-serious, harder-rocking effort than any of Browne's previous albums, a deliberate attempt to break the pattern of his work. The title song was one of only two compositions solely written by Browne, however, and though it was one of his liveliest tunes, kicked along by the A-list musicians who played on his summer/fall 1977 tour, it did pick up on some of his familiar lyrical themes. This was the first new song that record fans had heard from Browne since he had concluded his 1976 album The Pretender with the bitter, cynical title track, in which he vowed to be "a happy idiot" who lived a conventional material-obsessed life in the suburbs, worked a regular job, and eschewed the philosophical conundrums that had plagued him heretofore. Of course, that had been a deliberately disingenuous statement, but it did suggest that Browne felt he had reached a dead end, especially coupled as it was by the suicide of his wife. But in his own way, Browne did disappear into his job; it was just that his job was that of an itinerant musician. He spent much of the year following the album's release touring, then, after a break, embarked on the tour that produced the Running on Empty album. The song "Running on Empty" reflected all that. It began with the narrator literally looking at the road as it disappeared beneath his moving vehicle, which caused him to look back over his life, which he in turn defined as one that consisted of running -- running on, running on empty, running blind, running into the sun, running behind. Browne rejected his earlier pronouncements and eloquence, at one point declaring in an aside, "I don't know about anyone but me," and at another, "I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels." The narrator of "Running on Empty" is running away, of course, and he realizes that he won't be able to run forever. But despite his protestation that he is only speaking for himself, he clearly believes his experience is common to others as well, noting that he can tell by looking into their eyes that the friends he used to rely on are "running, too." The music of "Running on Empty" is exhilarating despite the desperation of the lyrics, and when the song was released as a single, it became Browne's second Top Ten hit, even improving on the chart showing of his breakthrough song "Doctor My Eyes," while the album became his most successful yet. Once again, Browne had captured the mood of the day -- a period when his audience was caught up in an era that seemed cheap and tawdry in the wake of the cathartic '60s, but at the same time flashy and at least temporarily exciting. "People need some reason to believe," he sang, but he could no longer offer them any reason, aspiring only to "get you to smile before I leave." Like "The Pretender," "Running on Empty" said very negative things about the times and was unsparing of the observer, but it was honest.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Running on Empty 1977 Elektra / Rhino 4:58
No Image 1980
Various Artists
No Image 1983 Asylum
Masterpieces 1993
Various Artists
WEA 4:50
Forrest Gump 1994
Original Soundtrack
Sony Music Distribution 4:56
Going Home 1996 Eagle Rock / Eagle Vision
The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Browne 1997 Rhino 4:58
No Image 1997
Various Artists
The Pretender/Running on Empty/Lives in The Balance [Box] 2001 WEA International 5:30
Walking in Memphis 2002
Various Artists
Universal International 4:45
No Image 2002
Various Artists
Warner Music 4:56
Best of...Live/The Next Voice You Hear: The Best of Jackson Brown 2003 Elektra 5:02
Superstar Rock Festival 2003
Various Artists
Warner Music 4:54
Legends: Crank It Up 2003
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:57
The Very Best of Jackson Browne 2004 Elektra / RHE / Rhino 5:31
A Tribute To Nicolette Larson: Lotta Love Concert 2006
Various Artists
Rhino / Rhino/Warner Bros. 5:01
Legends Informercial Set 2007
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:57
The  Best of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum: Live 2011
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:57
No Image 2011 Immortal
I'll Do Anything: Live in Concert 2013 Inside Recordings
Eugene, OR 1994 2016 Left Field Media 5:00
Awake Again 2017 Go Faster Records 5:19
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Vol. 8: 2004-2005
Various Artists
Time/Life Music 4:57
Running on Empty/Nothing But Time Elektra / Rhino 4:51
blue highlight denotes editor's pick