Jackson Browne has made the shift back from "Lives in the Balance" to love in the balance.
His first new album in four years, "I'm Alive," sets aside the global and political conflicts that consumed the singer-songwriter's angry attention for much of the last decade, softly supplanting it with the more immediate crises of home and heart.
In other words: It's less to do with war in Central America than war with Daryl Hannah.
But it is Browne's wish that listeners would look for communion and not just clues confirming celebrity gossip about him and his ex in these new songs.
"The situation in my case is somewhat dire," says a laughing Browne, well aware of the preconceptions audiences who followed his romance and tempestuous breakup with the actress might bring to the material.
"People imagine they know exactly what circumstances the song was being written in," continues Browne, who plays tonight and Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre. "But these songs were written over a period of four years, in lots of different states of the relationship, and if you imagine they were all written at one particular point, after the dissolution of the relationship, that misses. . . ."
He takes a breath. "Well, it's a drag to even imagine that people are thinking about that relationship instead of their own lives. I think if a song is any good, eventually it'll turn out to be about the life of the listener and not about the life of the writer. Anyway, that's my hope."
Though Browne, 45, sounds weary of public speculation about his private life, he's not shy about admitting that these songs are autobiographical, and proudly suggests that at least some will stand up with his best confessionals from his early pace-setting albums such as the classic "Late for the Sky."
That's one reason why he thinks of his current live show, which has a running theme based around love songs past and present, as the favorite of all the tours he's done over two decades. On stage, he says, "You really see these songs joining the body of my work."
The bittersweet album has a reservedly triumphal tone in many songs that suggests a survivor's mentality to weathering a busted relationship.
The opening words of the album, in the title song, set the tone:
It's been a long time since I watched these lights alone
I look around my life tonight and you are gone
I might have done something to keep you if I'd known
How unhappy you had become.
Off record, Browne is faced with surviving some bad publicity as well--there were allegations that he battered Hannah in an incident last year at the Santa Monica home they once shared. Pals such as Don Henley and J. D. Souther jumped to his defense, but Browne remained silent, and says he wants to avoid dignifying the reports by commenting directly on them even now. This album, he maintains, isn't his indirect attempt at having a day in court.
"I think it's OK to view it as what goes on inside of me," he allows. "But people shouldn't imagine these songs are a response to the outrageous speculation that took place in the tabloids.
"I'm not going to provide the actual details of what did happen, because it's not anybody's business. And I'm not even the main feature of that story. I know I'm made to be an ogre and I play the role of the heavy in a story that was put out there, but it's not true--and except for saying that, I don't know what else to do."
But isn't it tempting to respond when the gossip trade is itching to bait you into a defense?
"Of course. But it may be a particular blindness of a celebrity that he's gotta somehow keep the story straight about his own personal circumstance.
"And," adds Browne, veteran of many crusades, "there are many other injustices that you could apply yourself to without thinking your own life is that important."
Still, when it came to writing this album, Browne couldn't help turning to his own life for fodder.
For the first time in a decade, he's released an album free of political concerns. He insists he's no less concerned with injustice--and, in fact, he's still the king of benefits--but was lately less driven to pin it down in song.
"I do think that with 'World in Motion' I exhausted--momentarily, I should say--my capacity to think and deal with (politics). I would admit that, God forbid, I'm not quite sure how to keep abreast of what's going on when the world is changing so rapidly. It was wild to watch events starting with the pro-democracy movement in China, and very capitalistic changes that have happened monthly in the world in the last three or four years, and not really be able to get my arms around it.
"But while the world was changing really rapidly, my life was too. The whole of the '80s was a very political time. And I had a very stable life in my family and in my relationship, and it gave me a place to stand and to deal with the world outside of me for the first time in many years. There's a correlation between the stability in your life and your ability to deal with what's going on out there in the world.
"This record just represents a point in time when I was able to--and actually had to--deal with issues of love and responsibility."
Though "I'm Alive" is off to a slow sales start (No. 69 after three weeks on the national album chart), some longtime fans are delighted by his return to the arena of love songs. He's noticed the jubilation some take in the idea that "the old Jackson Browne" is back, and it leaves him with mixed feelings.
"I got a (rave) review in the New York Times the other day--and I mean, I'm fairly relieved to get a good review; it's better than the other way--but I hate to have it be at the expense of trashing my last 10 years of work. Two nights ago I appeared at an Oxfam America hunger banquet in Boston, and there are a lot of places where the songs from the last two albums still really mean a lot to people.
"People make the delineation between the personal and the political, but as my friend Steven Van Zandt pointed out in a conversation the other day, what's more personal than your political beliefs? It's quite a bit more individual than the universal feelings of love.
"I don't understand completely the delineation made in my own work . . . unless it's one of nostalgia. The longer you're around, the more certainly a part of your audience has memories tied in to certain songs and favorite times. I don't think there's any returning to an earlier time in your life--although some things are kind of cyclical, and it's possible to be in the same position later in life."
The set list on his tour, combining his oldest and newest ballad material, reflects the cyclical notion.
Browne describes these shows as "very different" from other recent tours, and he's happy to take them in a more subdued direction. "The shows in the '80s still had this sort of a big finish that really relied on 'Stay' and 'The Loadout'; it was nearer to that success of 'Running on Empty' then. I'm not doing that.
"To play (1976's) 'Linda Paloma' as an encore--something that compounds what you've heard with something thoughtful, instead of doing some up-tempo song that's supposed to keep people excited--in fact results in a whole different kind of happiness. It's interesting, because the lyrics to 'Linda Paloma' could be about my most recent experiences as much as anything I wrote on this album."