Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "Rocky Ground"

We round the last mountain and prepare for one last push into the Promised Land, and suddenly we hear flights of angels singing us to our rest.  Right?

At first listen, I thought I knew what this song was about.  It's Bruce playing the preacher again, playing pastor, leading his flock into the light.  Reminding us that in the long run, "hard times come again no more" if we believe - or (if you don't like that) if we work for it.  As such, I found it a serviceable song:  probably the most convincing piece of gospel I've heard from Bruce, with suitably Biblical lyrics about Jesus cleansing the temple, and a nice gospel chorus by Michelle Moore.  (Like, I suspect, most listeners, I'd never heard of her, but she has a winning, strangely amateurish yet sure quality to her singing.  The common touch.)  A good melody, with enough PBS-style self-consciously contemporary touches to sell it to, y'know, the whippersnappers.

But the more I listen the more I hear the doubt in this record.  To be precise, I'm starting to hear it as a dialogue between at least three voices, all saying different things.

The first voice we hear is a sample from an old Alan Lomax recording of an actual gospel raveup on "I'm A Soldier in the Army of the Lord."  Here's the whole track;  all Bruce samples is that voice singing, "I'm a soldier" (and it sounds to me like he might have overlaid it with his own voice). That's all we get:  not the jubilation of the original track, not even the worship, just the determination to fight.  Which, in the context of this album, could be a religious or a secular sentiment.  Could be worshipfulness, or could just be rage.

Then we get the refrain, in Michelle Moore's voice.  Churchy, but much calmer - and the chorus doesn't say a thing about Jesus or salvation, just keeps reminding us over and over of what a hard road we've come.  Moore's everywoman quality is particularly important here - she's supposed to be singing for all of us. The masses.

The third voice is Bruce's, and he is the pastor, singing words of faith, reminding us of the scriptural basis for all our sufferings, and the promises that have been made.  "We'll be called for our service come judgment day" - and judgment day's coming.  He's the voice prophecying redemption, exhorting us to hope in that "new day."

But then Bruce steps aside and lets Moore have the mike for a rap, and it's significant that she, the same voice that's been talking about this "rocky ground," is the one delivering this, and not Bruce.  Because the rap is full of doubt.  "Where you once had faith now there's only doubt / you pray for guidance only silence now meets your prayers / the morning breaks, you awake, but no one's there."  If this is the voice of the common people, then the common people's experience is one of prayers unanswered, deliverance undelivered.

Then the sample comes back: "I'm a soldier."  Over and over.  So you tell me:  who wins?  Is it a secular or a spiritual fight?  Did we get saved?

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