"And from the comfort of a dreamer's bed/And the safety of my own head/I went on speaking of the future/While other people fought and bled." With those words from the opening verse of "For America," the first track on Lives in the Balance, Jackson Browne turned away from the personal introspection that had characterized his earlier work and took dead aim at one of the most important political issues of the Eighties: U.S. policy in Central America.
The album was inspired, in part, by visits Browne made to Central America in 1984 and 1985, though he had already begun writing "For America" and the title track prior to his trips. "I know that in going to Central America, I was really moved to want to do something," Browne told Rolling Stone in 1987, "to talk about whether we really believe in freedom and justice for all or if it isn't just freedom and justice for us, while we do the most unspeakable things to other cultures."
Months before the Iran-contra scandal broke in the press, Browne sang on "Lives in the Balance" of wanting "to know who the men in the shadows are/I want to hear somebody asking them why." After the arms-for-hostages deals hit the news, the increased public awareness of the U.S. government's covert war in Nicaragua prompted Browne to produce and pay for a video for "Lives in the Balance" well after the album had passed its peak in terms of sales. Discussing the song at the time of the video's release, Browne said, "I imply that the truth is kept from us on a regular basis. I flat out say the government lies. Well, these things are no longer heresy."
Other songs examine related aspects of the album's political theme. The haunting "Soldier of Plenty" indicts the paternalism of America's attitudes toward its Latin neighbors, while "Lawless Avenues," with touching Spanish lyrics by Jorge Calderón, explores the impact of American foreign policy on life on the home front — specifically, in this case, in the Hispanic ghettos of Los Angeles. And, intriguingly, amid all the hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary stands "In the Shape of a Heart," one of Browne's finest love songs.
Lives in the Balance never achieved the commercial success of some of Browne's earlier records. That hardly mattered to him. "I like this album as much as any I've ever done," Browne said. "And there's a certain comfort, a security that I have, talking about something that I feel this strongly about. And whether or not an album succeeds wildly or not, that's intact."