CK Retro Review: Lives In The Balance by Jackson Browne

In a just world, Jackson Browne’s 1986 album Lives In The Balance would have been hailed as the kind of mass-audience masterpieces that peers like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon achieved in the second half of the decade. Not everybody was ready for the unflinching truth-telling, often at the expense of America’s leaders, that defined the album. Agree or not, the message was searingly spoken against a more diverse musical backdrop than Browne had ever before attempted. And, sadly, the album sounds eerily relevant still. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

8. “Soldier Of Plenty”- This is the one song on the album that gets a little too fussy production-wise and doesn’t do enough musically to leaven some of the bile being spewed, which makes it a bummer to endure even when the points being made are valid.

THREE STARS

7. “Candy”- Imagine a more in-depth look at the inner workings of the girl from “Somebody’s Baby” and you’ve got the gist of this moody track. It’s not as thorough as it could have been but it’s solid nonetheless.

6. “Lawless Avenues”- Browne catalogs the lives and deaths of a rough Latin neighborhood and adds in a couple anti-war shots for good measure. “Fathers and sons’ lives repeat,” he sings, suggesting the endless cycle of poverty and violent crime that hamstrings these hard-luck characters. Nice use of the Spanish vocals as well to add some authenticity to the tale.

FOUR STARS

5. “Till I Go Down”- The kicky reggae might have signalled a softening of Browne’s withering approach some other time, but not on this album. Instead it serves to soundtrack his promises of eternal vigilance as long as the atrocities he sees persist. By the time it’s over, “Till I Go Down” has turned into a rousing if unlikely anthem.

4. “For America”- With the charging guitar and the saxophone piercing the night, Browne sounds like he’s invading the territory of his buddy Bruce Springsteen with this opening salvo. The desperation in his performance sets it apart though, as does his willingness to castigate his younger self for not being more aware of the lies and governmental sleight of hand he now sees everywhere he turns.

3. “Black And White”- Browne brings it back down to a personal level on this elegant closer. He challenges the protagonist to reach back to his former self, the one ready to fight for his ideals no matter the cost, before it’s too late. The refrain of “Time running out” works on that micro level but it also serves as a larger warning that echoes the politicized rants elsewhere on the album. That Browne manages this so seamlessly without an ounce of strain is just par for the course for this gifted songwriter.

FIVE STARS

2. “Lives In The Balance”- Browne steals some of Paul Simon’s thunder by imbuing this unsparing protest song with hauntingly sad music featuring exotic Spanish folk song overtones. Not that he’s trying to sweeten the medicine: His lyrics about the questionable reasons that countries use to justify wars are as harshly eloquent as he’s ever written. If anything, the beauty of the music only intensifies the senselessness of the situation as perceived by Browne. “There are children at the cannons,” he sings, an image of madness that drives his point home with excruciating accuracy.

1. “Shape Of A Heart”- On this album full of topical material, Browne realizes that the topic of tortured romance is always a hot-button issue. This poignant, warts-and-all reflection on a past relationship allows him to theorize that the flowery stuff of love songs and the ugliness of real life are usually at opposite poles, and never the twain shall meet. “People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of,” Browne sings, and you get the sense he’s including his past songwriting self as one of those “people.” The moment when he drops his former flame’s old ruby into the hole in the wall from one of their former fights, a symbolic act of letting go, gets me every time.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

 

 

 

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