The continuing spiritual odyssey of Bruce Springsteen; Dylan tribute benefits Amnesty International
Written by Brian Q. Newcomb
March 13, 2012
"Wrecking Ball"Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)
For at least the last decade, on tours with his E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen has begun to embody the character of a rock 'n' roll revival evangelist, part carnival barker and part Steve Martin's preacher from the movie "Leap of Faith." Always with a wink and a nod, The Boss bears witness and testify, inviting his fans to rise to their feet, to "feel the spirit of rock 'n' roll." For all the irony of Springsteen adapting the language of salvation and religious ecstasy for his rowdy rock concerts, anybody willing to listen a little deeper might suspect that there was more going on than silly theatrics.
For decades, Springsteen fans willing to go there have taken notice of the influence of his Catholic upbringing, his use of Biblical images and language and the underlying spirituality expressed in his lyrics and music –– so much so, that there are dozens of books and Ph.D. dissertations written on the subject. To be clear, like Bob Dylan and other songwriters and poets, Springsteen has felt free to use images from his own childhood faith when writing about the issues of faith/belief and the human struggles for meaning, whether they be externally focused on class and survival or the internal quest for peace, love and understanding. But for Springsteen, this appears to be more than a passing curiosity or merely a literary device.
If you're looking for them, you can find such references and images going all the way back to his debut, "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." which launched his career in 1973, only to find his first huge commercial success two albums later with "Born to Run." With "Nebraska," in 1982, Springsteen stepped back from the broad, expansive rock anthems of "The River" (1980), to make a stark, some might say haunted solo recording that concluded with "Reason to Believe." In that song, the singer is standing in the midst of a congregation, the "preacher stands with his Bible," while an abandoned groom stands alone at the altar filled with questions and longing for the no-show bride. "At the end of every hard earned day," he concludes, "people find some reason to believe."
Whether it's identifying with Steinbeck's iconic working class character crying out for justice in "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (1995), or seeking meaning in the wake of the events of September 11, in 2002's "The Rising," Springsteen writes songs about sin and salvation, but you could make the point that these are the themes that can be found in all great literature.
With "Devils & Dust" ('05), Springsteen sang, "I got God on my side/I'm just trying to survive/What if, what you do to survive/kills the things you love/fear's a powerful thing," exposing the way that anxiety and stress can lead us to destroy the very things that give us hope and peace of mind. On that same album, he sings of finding "sweet salvation" in "Maria's Bed," much as he sang later in "I'll Work for Your Love" ('07) of finding the stations of the cross counting the bones in a lover's back, but he gets downright devotional elsewhere, most graphically with his reflection on the relationship of Mary and Jesus in "Jesus Was an Only Son."
Of course, there are spiritual/Biblical themes throughout Springsteen's catalog, songs of loss and redemption, hope and longing, but also in his more prophetic, politically focused songs (most notably on "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," the '06 release that honored the folk/protest song tradition personified in Pete Seeger), where he identifies with the struggles and suffering of the poor and middle classes, while the wealthy ones who live in mansions on the hill. What's surprising about this, perhaps, is that Springsteen can now afford to live in those mansions, and no doubt he could make even more money just singing about those long-past "Glory Days," and taking the E Streeters on the road playing "Born to Run."
All of which makes this latest offering, "Wrecking Ball," a bit of miracle in a world where the music industry has turned somewhat insular, supporting the status quo, avoiding artful statements that dig too deep into the personal or the political. When Springsteen opened the Grammy's last month with the E Street Band belting out his latest populist anthem, "We Take Care of Our Own," it was the singular moment in the entire 3-1/2-hour affair that recognized the current political tensions. I wouldn't have been surprised if he wasn't asked by the show's producers to play the second song on the disc instead, the one called "Easy Money."
Some who heard "We Take Care of Our Own," I know, responded the say some did hearing "Born in the U.S.A." back in the day, suspecting it was a jingoist anthem, so patriotic as to be exclusive and graceless. Again, context is everything. The older song sang of a returning Nam vet, reclaiming his homeland, which was slow to offer any real welcome home. On the surface, "We Take Care …" may sound a bit like that, saying "charity begins at home, and then stays there," but in a country where every citizen's right to health care is being challenged, women's reproductive health care especially, it may be the right time to ask, "Where's the promise from sea to shining sea?"
Health care and social security may not feel like an existential threat until you lose access to them. In that setting, Springsteen sings with prayerful longing: "I been knocking on the door that holds the throne/I been looking for the map that leads me home… where're the hearts the run over with mercy/where's the love that has not forsaken me/where's the work that'll set my hand, my soul free/where's the spirit that'll reign over me?" Here, tangible concerns like work and purpose rub up against the language of faith, and that's likely no accident.
"Shackled and Drawn" equates working class life with slavery, it's a "world gone wrong," where there nothing for "a poor boy to do but keep singing his song," even though "up on banker's hill, the party's going strong." But Springsteen, tells the angry lad to "pick up the rock son," revealing that the anger could boil over into violence at a moment's notice.
"Jack of All Trades" find the singer offering a calm assurance, a promise of survival in the face of economic blight as the "banker man grows fat, working man grows thin." A person of faith willing to "take the work that God provides," by the end he confesses that "if I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot them on sight." Again, the violence is barely contained, even as he prays that "we'll be all right." There's the hope that "the world's gonna change/and we'll start caring for each other/like Jesus said we might."
But, if there's grace it's hard won, as the songwriter in "Death to My Hometown" curses "the robber barons straight to hell/the greedy thieves who came around/and ate the flesh of everything they found, whose crimes have gone unpunished now." Face to face with such desolation, it is an act of defiance to invite the "Wrecking Ball." The advice is to "hold tight to your anger/and don't fall to your fears," because the nature of reality is that "hard times come and hard times go … just to come again."
"This Depression" seeks consolation, knowing that the situation has "never been this low." "I've had my faith shaken," Springsteen sings in prayerful drone, "but never hopeless … all my prayers, gone for nothing/I've been without love, but never forsaken/Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking/This is my confession/I need your heart." Somehow, this love, the promise of sunrise, this will have to be enough to sustain us.
Musically, Springsteen never drifts too far from his recognizable sound. Even though he has recorded without the full E Street Band, it often feels like his previous work with them, albeit somewhat more subdued. Working with first-time producer Ron Aniello, the two of them play many of the tracks themselves, using loops, ace studio back-up, layering in a horn section, and even a full gospel choir on a couple tracks. There's a bit of New Orleans here, a touch of Ireland there. Springsteen allows the sound to fit each song's direction and tone, a dirge march here, a trip to church there.
One of the more recent E Street additions, Soozie Tyrell, shows up to play violin on six tracks. Springsteen's wife Patti Scialfa sings throughout, Max Weinberg drums on three, Stevie Van Zandt adds mandolin and bgvs to "American Land," a bonus track, and thanks to modern technology, there are two sax solos from the late, great Big Man, Clarence Clemens, Springsteen's physical foil and artistic muse from the iconic "Born to Run" cover. Elsewhere, The Boss is backed by great players like Greg Leisz and Matt Chamberlain, and guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against The Machine/The Nightwatchman) plays solos on "Jack of All Trades" and "This Depression."
Some have suggested that this is the darkest, least hopeful of Springsteen's albums, but I see it in that same tradition of "Nebraska," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Devils & Dust" and "The Seeger Sessions." Here, as in folk, old-school country, blues, and gospel, when the going gets rough, you gather the community and sing your own truth. When the adversity is so great that you can't see way forward, your hope turns toward the One who "makes a way when there is no way."
As the record moves toward it's climactic conclusion, Springsteen turns hard toward the gospel tradition, with its honest appraisal of threat and death, and expectation of resurrection, even against all odds. "Rocky Ground" owns the long hard path, and finds solace in the fact that "Jesus said the money changers, in this temple will not stand/find your flock, get them to higher ground/the floodwater's rising, we're Canaan bound." Michelle Moore gives voice to a reggae toast, where we "pray for hard times, hard times come no more." Only "silence meets your prayers," so again there's no way. Still, "there's a new day coming," for what it's worth.
"Land of Hope and Dreams" dives deeper still into the gospel tradition, declaring that on "this train … dreams will not be thwarted/this train … faith will be rewarded." It's a cathartic gospel chant, that borrows heavily on a variety of songs celebrating the gospel train, and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," to suggest, beyond any logical expectation, that there's grace enough for all, it "carries saints and sinners … losers and winners." Somehow, someway, love wins.
Almost anti-climactic, Springsteen can't leave it there, and turns to the optimistic mood and tone of the Old West to assure that, all appearances to the contrary, "We Are Alive." While it taps the melody of June Carter's "Ring of Fire," it feels a bit like the theme to that old t.v. show, Bonanza, as the banjo and southwestern brass suggest that as long as we are alive, we can "carry the fire and light the spark, to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart."
As for the bonus tracks, "Swallowed Up" returns to the darkest Biblical images to suggest lost hope, while "American Land" celebrates our nation's immigrant songs.
This is the 17th full studio recording from Bruce Springsteen, alongside a host of live recordings, compilations and bootlegs. One of his strongest works, "Wrecking Ball" –– like "Born to Run," "The River," "Born In The U.S.A." and "The Rising" –– captures this very moment, the political tensions and personal anxieties of this immediate situation, and yet remains timeless. By facing the greatest disappointments, the most profound failures and losses, it finds a way through them to a source of resilience and hope that can sustain us, a spirituality that can bear the freight of modern life, even if it's not that clear, not that secure. In the end, it's the companions, the community that travels with us on these troubled roads, where we experience grace, where faith doesn't fail us. And till then, until the promised new day, we have the capacity to tell each other the truth about the life and world we share, and we have this music."Chimes of Freedom; The Songs of Bob Dylan"Various artists (Amnesty International)
When does art become activism? How does a song become a movement? How many roads must a man walk down … oh, never mind, you know where this is going. Bob Dylan wrote protest songs, and then when people said they were protest songs, he said they weren't and then he wrote songs that weren't protest songs, except maybe they were, you know, protesting a world that loved him for his protest songs. Anyone who knows a little about Bob Dylan and his art knows that he's an enigmatic artist. Anyone who says they know what he's all about is blowing smoke.
Still, no songwriter of the modern era has been more influential, had a more profound impact, or has so deeply challenged artistic expectations. That said, in spite of, or perhaps because of all that, he's also written some of the best, and most interesting songs of the last 50 years. Many of those songs are covered here on the four CDs that make up "Chimes of Freedom," a celebration of the music and influence of Bob Dylan that benefits Amnesty International on its 50th anniversary. As noble causes go, there are few nobler. It's a worthy contribution, no matter what, but here you get dozens and dozens of wonderful Dylan songs covered by a host of singers, both expected and completely unexpected.
Given the disc's variety and breadth, there's little I can say here in a brief space to do it justice. There are lots of great artists are here, from Adele to Ziggy Marley. There's punk from Bad Religion, glossy pop/rock from Maroon 5. There are big classic rockers like Sting, Mark Knopfler, Seal and Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Patti Smith and Bryan Ferry; plus those keeping the folk-rock tradition alive like the Avett Brothers (featuring Johnny Cash), Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman, Steve Earle & Lucia Macarelli, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Pete Seeger. And on and on the list goes, and includes My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello, Flogging Molly, Band of Skulls, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and more.
Surprisingly, most of these covers do the songs justice, either bringing the artist's take to the fore, or bringing something very different to the music to create a new context. Little disappoints, and mostly it fascinates. Now if you don't own "Biograph" or "Blonde on Blonde" or "Desire" or "Blood on the Tracks," go buy them first, but if you own a few of Dylan's finest, you'll enjoy this collection, too.