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30 Years Ago: Jackson Browne Moves From the Personal to the Political With ‘Lives in the Balance’

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After spending the first part of his career brilliantly articulating the inner lives of a generation, Jackson Browne faced outward with his eighth album, 1986’s Lives in the Balance.

Even though he’d framed a number of his ’80s compositions against a sociopolitical backdrop — using American consumerism in the Cold War, for instance, as an overriding theme for his 1983 single “Lawyers in Love” — Lives in the Balance marked a clear evolution in Browne’s songwriting when it arrived in stores on Feb. 18, 1986. Led off by opening track and first single “For America,” the album found Browne addressing current events with the same pointed, articulate approach he’d long brought to bear on matters of the heart.

The change wasn’t lost on his fans — or his critics, many of whom wondered what had triggered an evidently profound shift in the artist who’d penned navel-gazing singer-songwriter ’70s classics like Late for the Sky and The Pretender. “I’m 10 years older than I was when I recorded The Pretender,” Browne told Q. “I have less appetite for extreme introspection. At least, I wouldn’t want to do a whole album of it.”

Browne’s activism had long been a part of his public persona, and his Laurel Canyon roots dug down into some of the more politically oriented rock of the ’60s and ’70s, but for a number of listeners, Lives in the Balance was still something of a surprise — particularly because it took clear aim at the Reagan administration at a time when the bloody tangle of U.S. foreign policy had still yet to land in voters’ living rooms courtesy of the Iran-Contra scandal. Yet as Browne bemusedly argued, there’s really no polite way for an artist to turn the conversation to politics.

“It’s always a surprise when anybody says anything politically, don’t you think?” Browne asked the Guardian. “Were you surprised that Marvin Gaye suddenly wrote this song ‘What’s Going On,’ and that the most articulate and deeply felt anti-war song of the time was written by somebody that was not considered political at all?”

Listen to Jackson Browne’s “In the Shape of a Heart’

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Similarly noble intentions aside, few would have seriously attempted to draw a line between “What’s Going On” and the songs Browne penned for Lives in the Balance, which — though certainly politically aware on a level few of his peers had yet achieved at the time — lacked the sort of breathtaking insight listeners had come to expect from his finest work.

“I used to see current events as a trick to engage you in a part of the world which would never change,” Browne admitted in conversation with the Sunday Times. Reminded of a verse from “Something Fine” that described a protagonist unwilling to read newspapers and describing the world outside as a “beggar at my sleeve,” he quipped, “The beggar got my attention.”

Browne had started work on the record, including the politically fueled “For America” and the title track, prior to trips he made to Central America in 1984 and 1985, but his visits further galvanized his urge to deliver a message about the United States’ place on the world stage during the Reagan administration. “I was really moved to want to do something,” he told Rolling Stone. “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.”

For example, he told Q, “We’re bombing El Salvador with napalm and white phosphor. The pilots aren’t American but the planes are and the pilots are trained in the US. The napalm and white phosphor is manufactured in the US. The whole program is funded by U.S. taxpayers.”

That isn’t the sort of stuff that’s easily wedged into a pop song — much less one couched in the laid-back, acoustic-driven California sound with which Browne had long been identified. As he’d continue to do on his next album, 1989’s World in Motion, he struggled to pull the thread from the artist he’d been to the one he was in the midst of becoming.

“There’s nothing about the other struggles in pop music that appeals to me,” Browne told Anthony DeCurtis in an interview published in DeCurtis’ book In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work. “I don’t dress well, and I’m not very young anymore. I don’t play guitar a lot. Really, I’m a songwriter, and these are the subjects that came out.”

Watch Jackson Browne’s ‘Lives in the Balance’ Video

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Rock and politics would become increasingly intertwined as the decade wore on, and feelgood fundraisers like USA for Africa and Farm Aid gave way to more confrontational efforts like the Amnesty International tour. Lives in the Balance arrived in the crux of that shift, and although the album did well enough, hitting the Top 40 while spinning off the Top 30 single “For America” and the major adult contemporary hit “In the Shape of the Heart,” it also triggered a feeling of unease with a segment of his fan base.

A fair amount of the press surrounding Lives in the Balance argued that Browne ran the risk of alienating his audience with the record’s political focus — but in his interview with DeCurtis, he offered a pointed rebuttal. “If I were a person interested in these subjects and feeling that ‘My God, doesn’t anybody care what’s going on?’ and I heard a song like ‘Lives in the Balance’ coming over the radio, I’d be happy to hear it,” he mused. “I’d welcome it. I think a song can have a connecting effect. The effect is that it produces a dialogue. And there’s not a lot of political dialogue on rock stations or on MTV.”

Lives in the Balance ultimately ended Browne’s long streak of platinum releases, marking the beginning of a commercial lull that wouldn’t rebound until I’m Alive in 1993 — which, perhaps not coincidentally, found Browne’s lyrical outlook turning largely inward once again. But looking back on his musical/political statements years later, Browne expressed nothing but pride for the stands he took — and argued that subsequent events proved he’d been right in sounding the alarm.

“When people attribute a decline in my sales and stature to these political songs, I disagree,” Browne told Uncut. “The record company didn’t like the record or know what to do with it. But I never took it as meaning you shouldn’t sing about politics. The past 20 or 30 years bears me out.”

See Jackson Browne and Other Rockers in the Top 100 Albums of the ’70s

Next: Top 10 Jackson Browne Songs

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