It's one of the most significant songs of, say, the second half of Bruce's career, is "Land Of Hope And Dreams." But it doesn't owe that fact to its appearance batting cleanup on Wrecking Ball. As even most casual Springsteen fans will know, this song debuted on the 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band, and was included not only on the DVD and CD commemorating it, but on 2003's Essential set. This is not an obscure song.
Its appearance on the Essential set, alongside his other classics, was meant to recognize that it was a major composition, not just a throwaway for the tour. And in retrospect the song's importance stands out even more clearly. It announced a phrase in the Boss's career in which his determination to carry Woody Guthrie's torch, to speak for the common man, came to the fore. The Rising tried to speak for all the victims of 9/11. Devils And Dust addressed the war head-on. The Seeger Sessions tried to reclaim and reinvigorate a tradition of American folk and protest song.
"Land Of Hope And Glory" announces all that in epic fashion by inhabiting the spirit of one of Woody Guthrie's signature songs, "Bound For Glory." That there's a contemporary all-star rendition. Here's one Bruce would surely have known as a young man. And for good measure, here's the Rosetta Tharpe record that Woody was secularizing.
Bruce has balls. Sister Rosetta was singing about a gospel train that wasn't carrying gamblers because it was going to Heaven. Woody was singing about a train that was bound for a different kind of glory - you can fill in the blanks according to your political persuasion - that nevertheless couldn't carry gamblers because they'd just get in the way, harm the community. Bruce is going one better, pledging that his train is going to carry all the poor gamblers, whores, lost souls - he's going to redeem them all. (Is it too much to wonder if Bruce was also aware of Rank and File's take on the song, "The Conductor Wore Black"? There the train does carry sinners and gamblers, and the singer too - but it's going to hell.)
Or rather, this train is going to redeem them all, and Bruce is going to be their companion on it. So what is the train? In the context of the reunion tour, it seemed likely that the train was rock'n'roll, or perhaps even the E Street Band itself. The catharsis that they could offer live. Bruce's monologues and vamps on that tour clearly cast him in the role of tent-revival preacher offering rock'n'roll redemption, and "Land Of Hope And Glory" sounded like the ultimate statement of that.
So now he makes it the climax of Wrecking Ball. Gussies it up with gospel choir and a radio-friendly rhythm and a canny interpolation from Curtis Mayfield - tries to make it sound shiny and new. Not necessarily, I guess, to make anybody forget the earlier version, or pretend it never happened. But to make us all hear the song anew, so we can understand it in context of this album, this statement.
So: what? Well, that's the thing. Even here, the song's just a vision of redemption, a metaphor for it. In 2000, when his audience's wounds were (mostly) spiritual, a spiritual redemption was appropriate. But he's spent the whole record establishing that our wounds are physical - political, economic. And yet this song still offers mostly a spiritual redemption.
And yet. Leave aside the question of what the train is (and if it can still get anywhere in a country utterly unwilling to invest in public transportation). What about the singer? He's still there, pledging to "provide for you," to "stand by your side" so you can "lay your head upon my chest." The verses to this song pledge support, solidarity - and that, if multiplied by a few tens of millions, might just save us.