Woke In The USA: Jackson Browne's Political Awakening

Jackson Browne has a lot to answer for. Not for his own music, which has remained pretty solid over a remarkable career that began in 1966 during a stint with country rockers the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but for his perverted alliance with the Eagles, America’s icons of woe and decay, who he almost single-handedly quarterbacked to stardom by connecting them with David Geffen and their first record deal at Asylum. Browne even penned several early tracks for the Eagles, including US top 20 hit “Take it Easy”, which he co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey. In stark contrast with Frey and co.’s bridge and tunnel rock, Browne was largely known for his more sensitive material, particularly in the wake of his first wife’s suicide in 1976. Even so, his association with the Eagles represents an unsightly stain on an otherwise clean bill of rock and roll health.

Perhaps that’s why Browne’s 1980s output took an increasingly political turn as he performed his own twisted penance to purify himself of any lingering stench of the Eagles, culminating in the 1986 release of Lives in the Balance, a record that showcased his rapid disillusionment with his country, and especially its president. While the album featured some of Browne’s strongest tunes to date, his newfound wokeness and insistence on ripping the Reagan administration a new one threw much of his established audience for a loop. Much like watching a troubled acquaintance become the Internet’s authority on everything from pet adoption to high treason, Browne’s abrupt change in persona was rather jarring, to say the least. However, on Lives in the Balance he succeeds in channeling this frustration into a compelling volume of work, save for the album’s embarrassing title track, a song burdened by the condescending weight of its own hubris.

“Lives in the Balance” is Browne’s bitter indictment of the Reagan administration’s destructive foreign policy in Central America. The verdict? Guilty as fuck! Browne doesn’t stop with criticizing America’s support of far-right governments that murder their own people, he also vigorously opposes the entire military-Industrial complex, led by, as he puts it, “the men who send the guns to the wars that are fought in places where their business interests run.” Nicely said, JB, although it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. As if that weren’t enough, Browne keeps stoking these righteous flames by calling bullshit on the American government claiming to support freedom around the world when Reagan and his goons were in fact doing everything in their power to repress popular movements in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua. Something isn’t quite right here, though. Maybe it’s the song’s obnoxious pan flute solo, which feels like a desperate ploy to connect with Latin American listeners and invoke the revolutionary spirit of Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista buddies. It’s not as if any of Browne’s assertions are wrong, as shallow and obvious as they are, but where was this incendiary ‘tude of his when the Vietnam War was raging? The jungles of Indochina were still reeling from the effects of napalm and Agent Orange by the time Browne was singing about the existential angst of “Running on Empty” and calling the open road home. That’s all right. You do you, pal. Here’s an idea: maybe these “people under fire” and “children at the cannons” don’t need the smothering guilt of a white man in his late 30s suffering from an apparent identity crisis. Stop killing them with kindness, JB! They’re already dead.         

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