This kind of good-conscience pop is always the toughest to pull off. Jackson Browne’s most endearing and enduring qualities — the eternal boyish yearning in his voice, the genial and folkish warmth of his writing, the quiet intensity and romantic grace with which he examines world ills and bedroom tensions — are the very ones that threaten to undermine his argument. It’s so easy to succumb to the ballad charms of “Anything Can Happen,” on World in Motion, that it might take a few plays before the import of a line like “Yeah, if this love can happen here, anything can” really sinks in.
But Browne’s call to action on World in Motion is also the toughest kind to deny. Even more explicitly issue driven than its politically charged predecessor Lives in the Balance, World in Motion is an album of universal truths bound together by a highly personal focus.
Browne’s stance is also free of gratuitous pop-star rage, rooted instead in calm, unassailable reason. The beauty of a song like “Anything Can Happen” — which contends that if love can thrive in a climate of violence and dread, so can the promise of change — is that its calm adamancy is actually heightened by its tender elegance. That’s an effective strategy in a pop world where what you say is too often measured by how loud and hard you say it.
The title track is about as hard and loud as World in Motion really gets. Over a supple electro-funk groove copped in large part from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Browne measures the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots (“Down on Main there’s a family sleeping in a doorway/Around the corner you can hear the sound/People dancing around the golden calf”) while pressing us to pick up the shattered pieces of Sixties idealism and get down to new business. “Close your distances, drive your angels,” he sings with the added emphasis of Bonnie Raitt’s guest vocal echo. “Lose your fears and meet your dangers.”
In “The Word Justice,” Browne gets more specific about those dangers, citing grievous violations of our moral (if not legal) codes with emphatic guitars and undisguised bitterness: “And there is a need to keep some things a secret,” he sings. “The names of some countries — the terms of some deals/And above all the sound of the screams of the innocent/Beneath our wheels.” He’s no less direct in “How Long” (“How long/Would the child survive/How long/If it was up to you?”), although the skeletal electronic pulse, the ghostly resonance of David Lindley’s lap steel guitar and the slight quiver of vulnerability in Browne’s voice temper the accusatory words with a profound sadness.
The refusal to become a prisoner of that sadness is what keeps Browne’s World spinning. His unaffected but strident singing on the martial reggae-gospel cover of Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot” ideally suits the song’s elementary expression of hope and pride. The emotions at work in “My Personal Revenge,” a chilling Hispanic ballad, are darker, more complex, but charged with the same self-respect. Written by Nicaraguan singer Louis Enrique Mejía Godoy and based on a poem by Tomás Borge, the Nicaraguan minister of the interior who was imprisoned by the Somoza regime, the song is Borge’s promise to his jailers that his eventual victory will be sweeter because it won’t be tainted with his own fear or their blood. “My personal revenge,” Browne sings with cool assurance, “will be to give you/This song which has flourished without panic.”
Because Browne speaks softly while swinging his big lyric stick, World in Motion lacks the combative surge of protest hits like “Sun City” and Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” Still, there are a million ways for music to say that people deserve better — better government, better life, better love. On World in Motion, Browne gets your attention by getting under your skin.