AS INTENSELY PERSONAL as the bulk of his work has been, Jackson Browne has also long displayed the kind of social conscience that is becoming de rigueur in '80s pop circles.
So while his new album, "Lives in the Balance," may appear to be a rear-guard action, catching up to the Springsteens and Mellencamps, it is really more of a public refocusing of Browne's long-standing commitment to social and political issues. There's only one ballad here, "In the Shape of a Heart," a mournful catalogue of troubled communication and stultifying love. The rest is rock commentary on issues ranging from personal involvement in the political process to foreign policy appraisals.
The album's two standout songs are "For America" and "Lawless Avenues." Although it has some awkward moments, particularly in a chorus that ironically echoes Neil Diamond's "America," "For America" is Browne's impassioned attempt to work out a stance between dissolving idealism and persistent optimism.
Even better is "Lawless Avenues," co- written with Nicaraguan Jorge Calderon. The song, wedding Browne's observant lyricism with Springsteen's heroic melodicism, makes clear connections between the cultural frustrations encountered by America's Latinos and the cultural imperialism that prompts American intervention in Central America. The song provides a chilling glimpse of young lives played out at the dark end of "la calle."
Not all the songs work: "Soldier of Plenty" is close to a diatribe about "soldiers of misfortune," while the title cut is too obvious in the confusion and anger directed at those who choose not to be involved in the world (though it's nicely played out with a blend of pop and Nueva Cancion musicians). And "Till I Go Down" displays Browne's credo -- "I'm not gonna shut my eyes" -- over a weak, albeit catchy, reggae pulse.
It's in "Black and White" that one finds a definition of what seems to have happened to Jackson Browne and what he prays will happen to his America: "Tell them that you've gone to find a person / Someone you lost track of long ago / Tell them that it's someone that you need worse than / anybody else you'll ever know."
JACKSON BROWNE -- "Lives in the Balance" (Asylum 9-60457-4); Browne appears with Holly Near and Danny O'Keefe at Constitution Hall on Saturday in a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Sanctuary Committee and Americans for Peace in the Americas.