Jackson Browne wants to know what went wrong. Like several other platinum American rockers who came of age in the late Sixties — Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp and Don Henley are all his contemporaries — he's seen the heady activism of an era wither and die. On his eighth LP, Browne joins them in attempting to channel his disillusionment toward finding some order in today's chaos. He opens Lives in the Balance with "For America," both a prayer and a love song, which damns "a generation's blank stare." He doesn't find any answers — the LP closes with the bleak, disembodied chant "Time running out/Time running out."
Browne has only recently taken note in his material of the world around him: much of his Seventies work found him drowning in a fountain of sorrow and self-pity. When Browne sings in "For America" of how he used to retreat into "the safety of my own head," he isn't kidding. There were exceptions, of course: the best tracks on The Pretender in 1976 and Running on Empty in 1978 showcased bracing smarts and a substantial lyric talent that counteracted Browne's guilty-by-reason-of-geography Southern California solipsism. Lawyers in Love (1983) was transitional, juxtaposing such trademark dives into self-concern as "Tender Is the Night" with the more open, celebratory "For a Rocker" and the pithy title track, as probing (and hysterical) a dissection of cold-war politics in the Reagan era as the mainstream will allow.
Brown spent much of the last two years putting his own life in order, but he also took an active interest in the world outside his Los Angeles home, visiting Nicaragua and covering an overtly political song like Little Steven Van Zandt's "I Am a Patriot (and the River Opens for the Righteous)" at benefit shows. He became a vocal and visible patron of Nicaraguan bands and immersed himself in the values they champion. As a result, Latin America (and the U.S. government's meddling therein) dominates Lives in the Balance both lyrically and musically. Five of the album's eight songs allude to the violence south of our border; on the title track Browne employs members of the anti-contra Sangre Machehual, an L.A. Nueva Canción group.
For Browne, our crimes in Central America are the clearest example of the wrongheadedness of U.S. foreign policy. "Who are the ones that we call our friends?" Browne asks on the scathingly trenchant "Lives in the Balance" and sadly answers himself: "Governments killing their own." On the bitter "Soldier of Plenty," he focuses his rage on a single military figure; when his lyrics are more direct and less grand, as on this song, the issues seem more pressing.
This new-found ability to link the personal to the political breathes life into these songs and prevents them from becoming too didactic. On the horrifying "Lawless Avenues" (a virtual duet with sometime collaborator Jorge Calderon), the dead protagonist's sister runs away from the barrio with an outsider "after she saw/Every boy die who could have gotten close to her." The big events cause these "little" ones, and it's those connections that Browne makes, subtly yet forcefully.
In this way, Lives in the Balance is a direct descendant of Bruce Cockburn's overlooked Stealing Fire, another album that marries singer-songwriter devices to pained blasts against interventionism. Like Cockburn, Browne's not just writing about the headlines; he's trying to tell the stories of the people they affect.
But few would bother to listen to what Jackson Browne thought about American foreign policy if his talent as a rocker hadn't developed along with his gift as an observer. (Heard any Midnight Oil records on the radio lately?) Abandoning the blatant Springsteen cops that made many of his previous rockers too derivative to be taken seriously ("Boulevard," the fast parts of "Hold On Hold Out") for a more personal style, Browne's new music supports his lyrics instead of detracting from them. He's also surprisingly adventurous, integrating new — for him — sounds and styles into the mix. (Warm synths are tastefully deployed throughout the album.) "Till I Go Down" is credible reggae — Phil Chen's burping bass is particularly effective — though the lyrics, which boil down to a humorless rewrite of Warren Zevon's "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," are a veritable list of tough-guy clichés. In a perverse way, this is a relief: for the first time, Browne, the accomplished lyricist, has written a song more interesting for its music than for its words.
Browne draws strength from rock as if it were a religion. The potency of his new music, driven by crack L.A. session old-timers who rarely sound like this is just a job, inspires him. His phrasing is concise; his arrangements and melodies are terse and memorable; his production is uncluttered. His players rarely get in the way of the songs: only a gratuitous Clarence Clemons-derived sax riff that mars "For America" and a few other minor lapses distract the listener.
These musical and lyrical gains define Lives in the Balance, but Browne hasn't completely abandoned the love songs with which he's made a lucrative career. "In the Shape of a Heart" and "Candy" (the latter written by Greg Copeland and Wally Stocker) are modern in their arrangements — stark synthesizers pervade both tracks — but lyrically they're mature versions of the dark love songs on The Pretender. And when Browne finds the right couplets, rhyming "I guess I never knew/What she was talking about" with "I guess I never knew/What she was living without," he nails heartbreak to the wall and sends his listeners scurrying for the Kleenex.
Browne didn't place an image of the Statue of Liberty on the cover of his album just so he could jump on the Rambo express. He implies throughout the album that, like the statue, we're all weather-beaten and in need of some reconstruction. Jackson Browne no longer believes he can change the world — the closing "Black and White" is drenched in defeatism — but he doesn't use his fatalism as a crutch or a reason to quit. Sure, time's running out, but it's not over yet.