Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "We Are Alive"

"Land Of Hope And Dreams" was, for twelve years, an epic in search of an album worthy of it.  Wrecking Ball may be that album;  but there's no getting around the fact that "Land Of Hope And Dreams" wasn't written for this album.  If it works on this album, and I mostly think it does, that's only because, let's be honest, it's vague enough to work on any Bruce Springsteen album.  Put in the penultimate spot on Working On A Dream or Born In The U.S.A. and it would have worked just as well. 

"We Are Alive," meanwhile, feels like the epic this album, specifically, needed, and therefore summoned forth from the soil.

I'm trying to say that musically and lyrically, "We Are Alive" sounds very much of a piece with this album's best moments.  The folk-strummed guitar at the heart of the arrangement.  The banjo and breathy folk choir.  The Tennessee Two-step rhythm.  We're back at that all-Americana union hall hoedown.  The fact that the music breaks out into the "Ring Of Fire" horn line after every iteration of the refrain just seals it.  That is, by the way, the kind of so-wrong-it's-right touches that remind you of (a) how much of a music geek Bruce Springsteen has always been, and (b) what an important part of his musical genius that is.  He's got the heart of a hero but the mind of a weirdo.

Coupled to this glorious musical summing-up is the most haunting, deep dark desperate lyric on the whole record.  The first verse is horror-movie bravado every bit as rich as "Night With The Jersey Devil."  But then he goes all "Matamoros Banks" on us and sings to us in the voice of the dead.  First a litany of those who make him up who died in the cause of social justice over the span of a century and a half.  And then it gets dark. 

The singer awakes to find he's been buried alive.  And Bruce spends a whole verse describing this feeling.  Against that sprightly musical backing.  This is intense.  The singer is left to die, hearing the voices of all the dead who died in the cause of social justice. 

Here at the end of Bruce's depression album he's holding out the very real possibility that this time won't be the last time.  That maybe we, individually and perhaps even collectively, won't triumph or even survive this depression.  That maybe the best we can hope for is the faith, the assurance, that someday, somebody will triumph over the murderers and marauders, and when they do, it will be in some small part because we died trying.

This is how the album ends:  with a trio of tracks that swing between triumphalism and resignation, faith and doubt, sometimes within the same song.  Bruce holds out hope for victory, but also the possibility of defeat.  That strikes me as an honest response to the current crisis.  We don't know if we - however we define that collective - will prevail.  We may be too divided, one side too consumed with hate for the other, to stand together, when standing together is what it would take.  But we can't give up trying.  And that's truth.

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