I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in the golden age of solo Don Henley, and this 1989 album is certainly a part of that arc. After eight years of Reagan and the subsequent election of Bush the Elder, Henley was fed up. Never exactly a mellow customer to begin with, he’d seen years of greed, sanctimony, predation, warmongering, and inequality, and he was pissed. (Though being pissed about Reagan and Bush-1 seems kind of quaint nowadays, but how could he have known what was coming?)
Song after song on this album picks off Henley’s targets. “Gimme What You Got” — boom, materialism, avarice, and consumer culture. “Little Tin God” — boom, sham religion and demagoguery. “Shangri-La” — boom, envy and complacency. But the one that cuts the deepest is also the one that plays the gentlest: the title track. Over a gorgeous piano riff by Bruce Hornsby, Henley’s world-weary voice elegantly braids together the failures of a relationship with the failures of a social fabric.
Lawyers keep popping up in this song, and the genius of Henley’s lyric is that you can’t tell whether they’re divorce lawyers for a shattered couple or defense lawyers for a disgraced politician. The song combines the macro and micro levels of our eroding societal bonds, and shows us how we’ve been poisoned by fairy tales at each level, tales of true love and true patriotism, all too often a masquerade for acquisitiveness and venality. But Henley’s tone is wistful, not angry — he still believes in that place “still untouched by men”, at least for the duration of this song, even knowing that it’s only a temporary sanctuary from the truth behind our destroyed illusions. That tonal contrast is what makes the song so powerful, such a high-water mark of his career.
Hornsby also helps a lot. This album came out before the days of “featuring” credits for songs, or else there would be a whole lot of them on here. Hornsby’s piano defines the sound of “The End Of The Innocence,” and he’s just the beginning of the cavalcade of late-80’s stars. Check out Axl Rose screaming along with “I Will Not Go Quietly.” Hey, there’s Patty Smyth backing up “How Bad Do You Want It?” Ooh, both Melissa Etheridge and Edie Brickell (an odd combination for sure) are over there getting behind “Gimme What You Got.” Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch are all over this thing. Oh, and I guess Sheryl Crow too, though that doesn’t really count since she wouldn’t get famous for another 5 years or so.
Crow’s presence isn’t the only bit of prescience on the album. “New York Minute”, one of Henley’s all-time best, has imagery that was likely inspired by the grimness of late-80’s New York City, the danger and dread on display in books like The Bonfire Of The Vanities, but it sure does sound like a 9/11 song now. “In a New York minute, everything can change… You’d better take a fool’s advice and take care of your own / One day they’re here, next day they’re gone.” Similarly, in “Gimme What You Got” he sings, “All these trumped up towers / They’re just golden showers.” Henley had Donald Trump’s number (and the letter “P”) way back then, though nobody knew what kind of golden showers Trump would be raining down on all of us 30 years later. On the other hand, time hasn’t been kind to everything on this album. Henley’s shots at mentally ill homeless people and testifying women in “If Dirt Were Dollars” haven’t aged so well.
More timeless are the relationship songs on The End Of The Innocence. Like I said about the title track, there’s an extent to which many of the political songs are also relationship songs — “I Will Not Go Quietly” wants to wrap its loving arms around the small of your back, and “New York Minute” knows the days were so much brighter in the time when she was here. And “How Bad Do You Want It” dresses down an immature guy who mishandles a relationship, but Henley’s narrator stays at arm’s length from the story.
There are two pure relationship songs, though, both of which were deservedly popular (each just barely missed the Top 20 by peaking at #21): “The Last Worthless Evening” and “The Heart Of The Matter.” For as bitter and jaded as Henley is throughout the rest of the record, these two both display a wonderful romanticism and tenderness. In the former, he’s making himself vulnerable to someone else who’s in similar post-breakup pain, suggesting that if she gives him a chance, he’ll show her love again. “The Heart Of The Matter” also looks back on a breakup, though rather than looking for new love he’s just seeking forgiveness. Both of these songs strike at deep truths of the heart — the need for closure and the power of hope.
That’s where redemption lives on The End Of The Innocence. Yeah, it’s clear throughout the album that “if dirt were dollars / we’d all be in the black”, but there’s a place where we can go to wash that blackness away. That place is our own heart, and the hearts of others, and the path there requires forgiveness, emotional risk, and just a little bit of preserved innocence.