Jackson Browne Tackles What Matters Most on New Album

As much as he is known for his introspective meditations about personal relationships going back to his early works from the '70s, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne has also been a fearless chronicler of political and social topics. Starting from his 1983 album Lawyers in Love and through Lives in the Balance (1986) and World in Motion (1989), Browne has used his music to address important and relevant matters such as war, the failure of government, class inequality, and the environment. The artist backs up what he believes in not only through song but also in the causes he is involved with, including Musicians United for Safe Energy, Nukefree.org, and the Guacamole Fund, a non-profit group that supports progressive initiatives. Three years ago, Browne performed at Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

Browne's topical songwriting drew from what was happening in the world at the time of the recording, yet his lyrics are quite prophetic and prescient in this current political and social climate. The powerful title song from Lives in the Balance was recorded during the Reagan era of Iran-Contra, but it could also speak for more recent times as America is being drawn into another overseas conflict:

But who are the ones that we call our friends
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can't take any more
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone

After the overtly political World in Motion, Browne returned to more personal songwriting with 1993's I'm Alive. Since then, his last couple of albums have balanced between introspective and politically/socially conscientious songs. But his views haven't exactly mellowed as evident from a couple of songs from his previous records in the last 20 years: "Information Wars" targeted our mass media culture; "Casino Nation" addressed the issue of war; and "Where Were You" referenced Hurricane Katrina.

With his latest record Standing in the Breach, his first new collection of original material since 2008's Time the Conqueror, Browne turns in perhaps his best effort to date. On the surface, Standing in the Breach is a warm-sounding record that at times recalls such cornerstone '70s works as Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using), Late for the Sky and The Pretender. But under the surface, it's not exactly breezy when it comes to a couple of theme-oriented tracks on the record. "The Long Way Around," a predominantly acoustic tune with a bit of groove shuffle, addresses how far we've gone from a moralistic and ideal society of yesteryear, as Browne wistfully sings, "I can feel my memory letting go/Some two or three disasters ago/It's hard to say which did more ill/Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill."

Browne once said the soulful and empowering “If I Could Be Anywhere,” drew from his thoughts of the ocean. On the recording, which clocks in at seven minutes, he warns, "If the oceans don't make it/Neither will we." The beautiful and graceful "Walls and Doors" addresses how polarized we are as a society accompanied by an urgent plea, "There can be freedom only when nobody owns it." It's followed by the edgy bluesy-cowboy soulful rock of "Which Side" in which Browne bulletpoints the country's current ills such as corporate greed, fracking and the broken-down political system: "Take the money out of politics and maybe we might see/This country turned back into something more like democracy."

Perhaps the most powerful track on the album is the title song, a piano ballad about the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake which also provides a life-affirming sense of uplift. (It's amplified by the album's cover art, a photo by Moises Soman that captured the aftermath of the disaster.)

But like his previous albums, the political and social messages in Standing in the Breach are offset by Browne's introspective material. Notable is the opening song, the lovely, shimmering "Birds of St. Marks," a song he composed in the late '60s as a backing guitarist for the singer Nico. It was previously performed and recorded on his 2005 live album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1; but here it makes its proper studio debut. Other songs like the yearning "Yeah Yeah," the tender "You Know the Night," and the album's closing ballad, "Here," are intimate personal songs rendered in the style that is the hallmark of Browne's career.

These days Jackson Browne is only one of a few artists such as Neil Young and Crosby, Stills and Nash from the '60s counterculture generation who still uses music to advance important issues. His music paints a hard-hitting look at societal divisions, while at the same time serves as a salve for our souls. Standing in the Breach effectively addresses the uncertainty of these times, but in the bigger picture points toward a goal of hope with grace and humanity.

Read a recent interview with Jackson Browne in the Nation.


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