Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "This Depression"

Step back and take a deep breath.  This is a record album we're talking about here.  So far in this project I've been happy to (have needed to) echo the message in the songs, while reporting a few things that strike me about the art.  But, you know, in the end this is just me, just bloviating about art.  (I first learned that word when somebody used it about me.)

I'm not sure I get this song.  But now I'm starting to think that's just because I don't want to get it.

Let me digress here.  I grew up as part of the AOR generation, the generation that took it as a given that rock was an album-oriented music, the generation that bought albums instead of singles.  I awoke to rock at the turn of the '80s, and the single was already dying even in those days when vinyl was still healthy;  cassettes and CDs only hastened a process that the primacy of the album had started.

And so it was a revelation to me when I started reading about the history of rock and realized that, once upon a time, it had been a singles-oriented music.  Learning about the early Who and Pete Townshend's celebration of the 45 as an art form really opened my eyes.  The idea of a band pouring everything they knew, everything they felt, everything they were capable of and more, into a three-minute side, and then just maybe coming up with a glorious goof for the other side, was a really powerful one for me.  Because it was clear that this was not how rock worked in my day, for the most part. 

Part of my musical growth was to divorce my thinking from albums.  Appreciating albums was second nature to me:  what I had to learn was to question them, to ask if every band really had an album's worth of stuff to say at any given time. To learn to recognize filler as filler, and then to discern good filler from bad.  When the mp3 came along years later and posed its existential threat to the album as an art form (leading directly to the current fetishization of the album as an art form), I was already there, babe.

So deeply did this contrarian streak sink into me that I've lately come to realize that I'm more skeptical than I should be of albums as an art form.  But I'll admit it:  there are some artists who not only think in terms of albums, but who are talented enough and have enough to say that they make albums that are worthwhile as albums.  (I still maintain that the truth of this isn't as self-evident as a lot of listeners think.)

And Bruce is, of course, one of them.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, after the first five songs on this disc, which as you can see elicit quite passionate reactions from me, this song leaves me feeling kind of meh, and so the contrarian in me would drop it, put together an abbreviated playlist of maybe 9 songs (that me would probably also drop "You've Got It") and call that the true Wrecking Ball.  But that me would, I think, be acting overhastily, and this me would tell that me to chill the fuck out and give Bruce the benefit of the doubt.  Try to understand, to feel, what he's doing here, why this song is here.  At the very least that might tell me why I don't like it so much.

Answer, as I see it.  This song is here to pivot us to the second half of the album, the last five songs of what is (in its standard form, sans bonus tracks) an 11-track album.  And the second half of the album, while still conscious of darkness, is going to be a good deal lighter.  It's where Bruce is going to try to offer us redemption, try to perform redemption for us, or on us.  "Wrecking Ball" is where it starts.  But that would be just too abrupt a transition from "Death To My Hometown."  And so this ballad is there as a cushion, a soft landing before we take off again.

As such, it performs, in microcosm, the drama of the whole album.  The title is the album's baldest statement of theme:  we're in a new Depression, This Depression.  But the lyrics take us from the political to the personal:  they seem to be talking about an emotional depression, although they're carefully vague enough not to rule out an economic one.  In fact that's the way these lyrics are supposed to work on us:  by posing as a man's admission of emotional vulnerability and positing that he can be redeemed by your love, it's suggesting that we as a society can also be redeemed by admitting that we need each other as a community, and taking care of our own.  Right?

And the bridge holds out hope that this can happen:  "I've been without love / but never forsaken / now the morning sun / the morning sun is breaking."  And the second half of the album is going to try to follow through on that hope.

I can see that.  But I'm not sure I want to;  I'm not sure I buy Bruce's hope.  I'm certainly not as sanguine about this country's ability to pull together and help each other.  I've never seen it in my lifetime.  But then, my doubt isn't the issue here.  I know enough to know that I have to act, to vote, as if I did have hope.  So I'm just going to try to shut up now and get out of Mr. Springsteen's way.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "Death To My Hometown"

They only call it class war when we fight back.

Having laid out the problem as plain as he could in "Jack Of All Trades," our Virgil-guide now lets rip with the righteous anger.  This is a call to arms.  It's a proud attempt to rouse us rabble, to stir some shit up, to get us out into the streets, or keep us there.  Is Bruce Springsteen exhorting us to revolution here?  May fucking be.

It may be just metaphorical violence he's urging us to.  "Now get yourself a song to sing / and sing it 'til you're done / sing it hard and sing it well," seems to be the extent of his exhortation.  But look at what he prophecies will happen if we do:  it'll "send the robber barons straight to hell."  This machine kills fascists, right? 

But what if a little banker blood gets spilled?  After all, they're "the greedy thieves who came around / and ate the flesh of everything they found / whose crimes have gone unpunished now / who walk the streets as free men now / they brought death to our hometown, boys."  They're starving us, putting us out of work, trying to make sure we die if we get sick.  Their policies, their rapacity, are destroying our cities and towns.  They're killing us.  But if you point that out, you're the dangerous one. 

Is Bruce Springsteen exhorting us to revolution here?  If so, he's careful to point out, through his oratory and his music, that he's just taking his part in a long and patriotic lineage.  It's right to want to bring the fuckers to justice.  It's part of the American tradition.  We may not take care of our own.  But, for better or worse, we do fight back when attacked.  So why not this time?

That's why the lilt of the melody, the jauntiness of the cadence, harken back to sea chanties, for God's sake - you can almost picture this song being sung by sailors at sea, Irish immigrants just off the boats, bluecoats marching to the fife and drum.  That's why the lyrics get so bloody and specific - earlier generations of liberals weren't so squeamish about their rhetoric.  It's liberating to call a spade a spade.

Bruce has trod this ground before, of course.  But last time he was content to be subtle about it.  To dramatize it, to observe and let us draw our own conclusions, hoping we'd figure it out for ourselves.  Well, we didn't.  And so he's spelling it out for us this time.  Is that less artful?  Is there not as much art in clarity as in subtlety?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "Jack Of All Trades."

Now is the time for your tears.  After three songs that try to put on a brave face, try to believe in a community that might be ready to "start caring for each other / like Jesus said that we might," that try to will that community into existence with all the art and craft a long and storied career can bring to bear, we get to the heart of the matter.  There is no such community, not in this country.  Those who believe in Jesus most vociferously and ostentatiously quite obviously don't believe in what he said about loving yer neighbor. 

And so the heavenly hoedown of the previous two songs, the would-be AM anthem of the first track, gives way to the weariest of weary ballads here, complete with a kind of instrumental sigh behind the line "the banker man grows fat."  Musically it's still throwing in bits of everything Bruce has done, from the simple piano accompaniment of his great '70s ballads to the ethereal synth beds of his '90s soundtrack classics, plus an elegiac trumpet that comes from God knows where.  All to make you weep, brother.

Because here the narrator, too, now of one united mind, begins to realize that what he's saying isn't true.  He testifies to his willingness to work, catalogs the things he can do, and reassures his lover that "I'm a jack of all trades / honey we'll be all right," but he knows, she knows, we know, it ain't so.

And why ain't it so?  Because They don't need us.  The bankers and those they bank for have figured out how to make money off of us without employing us.  Every job that isn't nailed down is being shipped out of the country or automated out of existence - it doesn't matter how many jobs you can do, because pretty soon you won't be needed to do any one of them.  The few jobs that are left have so many people clamoring for them that They hardly have to pay anything at all.  We're begging to have our right to a living wage taken away from us.  We'll work for free, just on the off chance that someday They might deign to pay us to work.  We're all superfluous to the bankers' schemes.  Except, possibly, as chits in their wagers - "they'll bet your life," the singer reminds us.

What makes it worse, although it's no doubt intended to make it better, is the singer's knowledge that "it's all happened before and it'll happen again."  We're in a Depression, folks.  Well, the last one ended.  But the bankers are determined not to make that mistake again. 

If you're not angry (suicidal will do) by this point in the album, you're not paying attention.