Some time before Jackie Greene released Giving Up the Ghost, he declared that he wanted a Top Ten hit. "I want a big song," he told an interviewer, adding "You're not a musician because you want to starve." There's no reason Greene shouldn't have that Top Ten as his talents are manifold -- as a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist he's prodigiously gifted. But thus far that mainstream success has eluded him, and there's even been something of a backlash against him among the rockist cognoscenti, a rarity for an artist who has yet to truly break out. Giving Up the Ghost illustrates both why some are skeptical and why others can't seem to lavish enough praise on him. Giving Up the Ghost follows three albums for the small Dig label and one for the larger Verve Forecast, and like those others, it's got riches to spare. Greene's writing has become more complex, both emotionally and structurally, without becoming verbose. He's meticulous and broad in his scope, drawing from numerous streams without being derivative: he has been compared to many of the greats (yes, even Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), but those comparisons are neither fair nor necessary -- Greene can stand on his own. Working here with co-producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Greene elevates his new material into something super-sized -- not in a bloated, grandiose way, but rather as music that presents itself as important. And that is both its greatest attribute and where it runs into problems. There is no denying that Giving Up the Ghost feels just a tad dishonest, that its makers took perfectly mature, well-crafted songs and overcooked them in the studio with the aim of prepping and Greene-ing them for 20,000-seat arenas. Berlin reaches for the sky when there is no need to, at times actually overshadowing the intricacies of the songs; often the production approaches bombastic.
That's not to say that Greene should aim lower: some of these songs, notably the delicate "Prayer for Spanish Harlem," the gutsy "Like a Ball and Chain," the forceful "Ghosts of Promised Lands," and "Animal," invite close listening and even study -- not because they are dense but because he's such a literate, smart writer that his music requires more than a cursory listen. That he can at times boil over into the obtuse and wordy is also true, however. On "Uphill Mountain," on which Greene name-checks the likes of Big Joe Turner and John Henry for no apparent reason, he sings, "Sometimes it gets a little rough like the wheel's made of steel going an uphill mountain/Better stand tall if you're gonna stand at all and if you're gonna fall, well you might as well fall." It's evocative, it invites pondering, and it's richly imagistic -- great qualities for any song, just maybe not for one that aims for the Top Ten. Greene can find the balance he wants, but he hasn't yet. There is potential greatness here, just as there has been since Greene was first introduced earlier in the decade, but Greene would have to dumb down to reach the sort of mass audience that creates a Top Ten single, and it would be a shame if he did. Already, there are signs here that he's willing to do that, but if he can just be himself, keep making music that is true to his heart and stop worrying about becoming a star, his audience will surely find him.