Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Springsteenian Gothic

Bruce Springsteen's latest album, Wrecking Ball, is arguably his greatest (at least since Darkness on the Edge of Town), but what's really striking to me here is the darkness of the Boss's lyrics and his deployment of horrific tropes.  For instance, the title track--a defiant cry from a personified Giants Stadium on the eve of its demolition--presents a grim ("Here where the blood is spilled") and ghost-packed ("'Cause tonight the dead are all here") arena.  And the first single, "We Take Care of Our Own," is no more a patriotic anthem than "Born in the U.S.A." ever was, but rather an indictment of American callousness, of the dessication of charitable spirit ("I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone / The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone") that is creating a national wasteland.

Hearkening back to "Nebraska," the song "Easy Money" features a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde whose idea of going out on the town involves carrying a Smith and Wesson to rob and shoot those who cross their path.  "Shackled and Drawn," meanwhile, bespeaks economic imprisonment, a shadowed existence ("I'm trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong") where the dawn of a new morning only brings the poor working man "another day older, closer to the grave."  Lower-class angst saturates "Death to My Hometown," a damnation of Madoff-Age
"robber barons," who are depicted as both apocalyptic "marauders" ("They left our bodies on the plains / The vultures picked our bones") and cannibalistic ghouls ("The greedy thieves who came around / And ate the flesh of everything they found").

Nowhere, though, does Springsteen channel American Gothic better than in "We Are Alive," which plays like a musical version of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology.  The song is set in a graveyard where "at night the dead come alive," speaking through "cold grave stones" to share their personal histories:
A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
I was killed in 1963
One Sunday morning in Birmingham
I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they've left our bodies here to rot
"We Are Alive" ultimately emphasizes the persistence of the soul beyond physical death and decomposition, but for all the song's fighting spirit it also forwards some burial imagery worthy of Poe.  In one of the latter stanzas, the speaker relates the tale of his discovery that he is no longer a mere visitor to the graveyard:
Well I awoke last night in the dark and dreamy deep
From my head to my feet my body'd gone stone cold
There were worms crawling all around me
My fingers scratchin' at an earth
Black and six feet low
I don't want to give the impression that Wrecking Ball is a simply morose offering.  Certainly there are some slow and somber numbers (such as "This Depression"--a lover's plea from a pit of utter despair), but these are offset by sultry love songs ("You've Got It") and uplifting hymns ("Rocky Ground").  Even the songs that broach dark subjects ("Shackled and Drawn," "Death to My Hometown") are rhythmically upbeat, and the bonus track "American Land" (which concludes the Special Edition of the album) is so rousing it could make the comatose tap their toes.  With its combination of incredible music and haunting messages, Wrecking Ball delivers a terrific blow to listeners.

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