Humanity is ultimately summarized by two themes: life and death. The rest is just drapery. What else is there? Even heavy metals like Eros (desire) and Ploutos (avarice) eventually melt into Zoe (life) and Thanatos (death). What is it that we fear if not death, the fear behind other fears; and what fuels our deepest hopes and laments besides, irreducibly, life?
Nothing against Eros, Ploutos, or drapery, but art that doesn’t get around to grappling with death and life is sooner or later unsatisfying. That’s why I love Bruce Springsteen music. It’s death and life, all the time.
Which is also why some people hate The Boss. The Bruce haters, even ones who agree with his politics, will cite his grim determination to continually address Big Themes, give a state-of-the-union address with every album, and play working-man blues despite his millions as reasons to respect Springsteen (at best) more than enjoy him.
Case in point was the 12.12.12. Sandy benefit last week; aside from a closing “Born to Run” sing-along with a Bon Jovi lookalike, Bruce’s set list consisted of topically appropriate but less well-known tunes, all drawn from the past ten years. Surely casual fans were yelling for “Freebird” instead, but the Boss had work to do. “Heavy lies the crown on Bruce Springsteen’s head,” a music critic has recently opined.
My 20 gigs of Bruce on my iPad notwithstanding, I’ll grant the premise that sometimes The Boss can turn unenjoyably dour. Springsteen’s six studio albums of the last decade have brilliant moments—and at least Magic and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions stand nearly side by side with “classic” Bruce albums—but they also have their share of clunky moments.
For example, on The Rising, the 2002 meditation upon 9/11, it’s fine for Springsteen to commemorate the sacrifices of NYFD firefighters, but when he sings about their going up the stairs “into their smoky graves,” one wishes for less literalism and more metaphor. It’s life and death, sure, but the song doesn’t need to scream, “This is about life and death!” (And the less one says about Working on a Dream, the better.
I’m still waiting for Bruce to fess up and tell a reporter, “That song was the centerpiece of a nursery rhyme project that went horribly, horribly wrong. I trashed the album and told Columbia that it was ‘in the can,’ but the label thought I was telling them to release the thing. Then Obama started asking me to play the song at his rallies, and I knew I was screwed.”)
Those interested in hearing a Bruce Springsteen whose crown weighs less heavily should check out his second album, 1972's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. It’s all life and death, but all of it obliquely.
It’s impossible for a pop singer to be totally un-self-conscious—the ego thing—but there’s still a difference in musical writing and execution when an artist believes he’s making a record that will be heard by hundreds of people versus by millions.
With the former, you’ll hear an unvarnished earnestness (despite however much irony may stick to the ribs) that sales success will erase. The Wild, the Innocent is the audience’s last chance to hear Bruce Springsteen before he became BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. His next record, Born to Run, drove him to the top of the charts, as he knew it would.
But what Born to Run gains in breadth of vision, it loses in intimacy. Nick Hornby once remarked about “Thunder Road,” the lead track to Born to Run, that redemption songs shouldn’t include the word “redemption” in them. He’s probably right. The Wild, the Innocent, on the other hand, finds a young artist swinging for the fences without thinking anyone was taking notice.
The result is a record at once looser and more ruminative than anything Springsteen has released subsequently, save perhaps Nebraska, which, not coincidentally, was recorded as a set of demos not intended for public release.
I think of how Greil Marcus described Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, and how his words apply here:
So much of The Basement Tapes are the purest form of speech: simple free speech, ordinary free speech, nonsensical free speech, not heroic free speech. Cryptic free speech: a voice that can say almost anything while seeming to say almost nothing, in secret, with music that as it was made presumed no audience but its players and perhaps its ancestors, a secret public.
Such is The Wild, the Innocent, as we hear free speech about boardwalks, alley fights, street urchins, hustling musicians, and circuses. It’s an album that’s found its secret public who happens to hear Zoe and Thanatos whisper through its grooves.
Big themes are always best left buried in the details.
(continued at http://www.wordsofangehr.com/?p=59)