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.

Bruce Springsteen: "Land Of Hope And Dreams"

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.

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?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "You've Got It"

So what, no Bruce Springsteen album - no rock album - would be complete without a love song?  Or is it that, after seven songs of public statements, the record needed a private sentiment here?  Is it that a naked statement of love is an indispensable part of the hope that was scheduled to dominate the second half of the album?  Or is this meant as an elegy for what's been lost, an empty gesture of devotion to what the wrecking ball has already wrecked?  Or is it meant as a hymn to whatever's left of good in this land that doesn't now, but might one day, take care of its own?  All these things and more, no doubt.

I admit I find it a rather weak song.  A tired beat, an unmemorable melody, an instrumental backing that only finally discovers a bit of raunch as the song fades out.  Structurally, though, it probably needs to be there.  A kind of seventh-inning stretch.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: "Wrecking Ball"

Well, yeah.  It's a classic Bruce Springsteen number.  Famously, the lyrics are a tribute to Giants Stadium, scene of many an E Street Band show over the years, as it was about to be torn down.

Pause to note that the pessimist in me finds it bitterly significant that two of the brightest spots of hope on the second half of this album are old songs.  That is, Bruce had to reach into his bag of unreleased tricks in order to present us with the requisite silver lining.  As if to say, he couldn't muster the optimism in the present moment.  Things are too dire.

So:  here's Bruce serenading a piece of Jersey culture, and a product of American heavy industry, as it's on the way out.  I mean, the metaphorical fruit is pretty low-hanging here, but there wouldn't have been anything to gain by not picking it.  Just because a pitch hangs perfectly doesn't mean you shouldn't swing at it when you need a run.  That's how I feel about this song:  it's an obvious statement, but sometimes you need to come out and state the obvious.  Sometimes giving an audience what they want can be a great act of charity.

Which isn't to say the record doesn't have its subtle and distinct charms.  I like how the strummed electric guitar that underlies the whole thing sounds like a folk guitar, making this otherwise very E Streetwise number into a very natural piece of folk rock.  As befits a guy who's been desperately trying to channel the spirit of Woody Guthrie for almost two decades now.  I like how the horn part sounds like a synth patch worked out in about ten minutes, giving the record a kind of amateurish immediacy.  I like how the sprightly melody, and the singer's light-hearted drawl, underscore the jaunty defiance of the lyrics.

It's almost enough to make a believer out of you.  Almost enough to make you believe there might be a future left after the present dollar-sign-emblazoned wrecking ball gets finished with us.