Song of the Day #4,688: “In the Shape of a Heart’ – Jackson Browne

With 1986’s Lives in the Balance, Jackson Browne made an unfortunate pivot from the personal to the political. The thoughtful poet who so successfully mined matters of the heart was now singing about Ronald Reagan.

I call this shift unfortunate because I have an aversion to overtly political songs, especially when they are dressed up with glossy production. It’s one thing for Bob Dylan or Joan Baez to sing about civil rights with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica in the 60s, but do I need Sting crooning “Hey, Mr. Pinonchet” over a bed of soft jazz? No, I do not.

Browne’s political songs are way too on the nose lyrically, and they’re way too fussed over musically. I have a hard time taking any of it seriously, especially when the geopolitics are now 35 years out of date.

A song like ‘For a Dancer‘ was written ten years before this album and still resonates today because it is about love and loss. And while issues of social and political injustice are sadly just as relevant today, not every topical song can survive the passage of time.

So Lives in the Balance is mostly a bust for me, with one big exception. One of the few non-political songs on the album, ‘In the Shape of a Heart’ finds Browne revisiting his relationship with first wife Phyllis Major, who took her own life a decade earlier. This is a raw, sad song that somehow works as a catchy pop tune at the same time.

It was a ruby that she wore
On a chain around her neck
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
It was a time I won’t forget
For the sorrow and regret
And the shape of a heart
And the shape of a heart

I guess I never knew
What she was talking about
I guess I never knew
What she was living without

People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of belief and belonging
Try to fit some name to their longing
People speak of love

There was a hole left in the wall
From some ancient fight
About the size of a fist
Or something thrown that had missed
And there were other holes as well
In the house where our nights fell
Far too many to repair
In the time that we were there

People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of
Reach out to each other through the push and shove
Speak in terms of a life and the learning
Try to think of a word for the burning

You keep it up
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
What breaches and faults are concealed
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart

It was the ruby that she wore
On a stand beside the bed
In the hour before dawn
When I knew she was gone
And I held it in my hand
For a little while
Dropped it into the wall
I let it go and heard it fall

I guess I never knew
What she was talking about
I guess I never knew
What she was living without

People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of a life and the living
Try to find the word for forgiving

You keep it up
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
The shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,688: “In the Shape of a Heart’ – Jackson Browne

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    Well, I guess I have my answer! Needless to say, I disagree. I played this album frequently in college and loved it, particularly the title track. I can see that opener “For America” is too “on the nose” politically, but I like to love the other 7 songs on this record.

    And, by the way, I also find “They Dance Alone” by Sting to be a beautiful song from a very good album Nothing Like the Sun, so I suppose this will remain a point of disagreement between us as it seems your pet peeve has solidified and intensified over the past 35 years, with the glaring exception of Bob Dylan, whose overtly political songs you praise because of lack of great production? Curiously, you seem to also make exception for U2 and their well-produced on the nose political songs.

    I think what this really boils down to is that you have an expectation of artists like Dylan and U2 that they are political by definition,, whereas this is not what you want or expect from Browne (or Sting).

    • Clay says:

      In Dylan’s case, his overtly political songs were largely contained in his first few albums, and were part of a larger folk protest movement that I find historically and aesthetically interesting. By the time he got to Bringing It All Back Home, five albums into a 40-album career, he left that behind.

      I don’t consider myself a huge U2 fan, and the music of theirs I like best is not anything overtly political, so I’d say my response to them is in line with my response to Jackson Browne or Sting.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    Perhaps it is because you were a bit younger during the Reagan years, but there was a resurgence in political protests with artists like Sting, Browne, Springsteen, Mellancamp and Bono leading the way musically. It was quite relevant to those of us in college in the 80s, and perhaps now is viewed with the same historic and aesthetic interest and fondness that you hold (as I do) for the 60s protest/political music.

    • Clay says:

      I find a song like Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ more successful because it makes its point through storytelling and not speechifying. Hell, it was subtle enough that Reagan used it for his campaign thinking it was patriotic.

      Mellencamp’s ‘Pink Houses’ is similarly subversive, and funnily enough, both Reagan and John McCain tried to use it in their campaigns. Funny how these Republicans are so bad at detecting irony.

      On the flip side, ain’t no way in hell Reagan would accidentally use a Jackson Browne political song in his campaign because they’re so free of nuance.

      I think that’s one reason these mid- to late-80s albums were Browne’s least successful, both commercially and critically, while Springsteen and Mellencamp had the biggest hits of their careers.

  3. Russ Paris says:

    Overall, I’ve greatly enjoyed your journey through Jackson’s early albums, but this is the first one that I strongly disagree with.

    Lives In The Balance reached #23 on the album charts and remained on the chart for 31 weeks. The first single “For America” was Jackson’s 10th Top 40 hit, reaching #30 on the charts. The follow-up single, “In The Shape Of A Heart”, peaked at #70. The album was ranked #88 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best 100 albums of the 1980s.

    While it isn’t my favorite Jackson Browne album by a long-shot, there are a number of excellent tracks and some great production (which you call too “glossy”). For example, “Lawless Avenues” is one of Jackson’s most intricate musical arrangements and one of my favorite of his tracks. And the title track is also, musically, one of Jackson’s stronger tunes.

    I just think you are letting your objections to the political nature of the album bias you against some excellent music, but I know you are not alone in that. Many of the reviews and fan comments at the time felt the same way. So I’m not at all surprised by your comments. I’m not an overtly political person, but as Jackson has often put it, “what’s more personal that one’s politics.”

    Rolling Stone’s original review of the album was very positive saying, “This new-found ability to link the personal to the political breathes life into these songs and prevents them from becoming too didactic.” And also, “Browne’s not just writing about the headlines; he’s trying to tell the stories of the people they affect.” How is this any different than “The Pretender,” “For Everyman” or even “Lawyers In Love”?

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