Bruce Springsteen: Guthrie's Storytelling vs. Seeger's Preaching

Music Features Bruce Springsteen
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Bruce Springsteen was once as great a storyteller as pop music has ever had. Whether it was the rebellious teenager in “Growin’ Up,” the beach-house squatter in “Backstreets,” the divorced dragster in “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the conflicted cop in “Highway Patrolman,” the returning Vietnam veteran on “Born in the U.S.A.” or the abandoned wife in “Spare Parts,” the protagonists in his best songs were never everyman archetypes but one-of-a-kind individuals in a specific time and place who moved through a narrative arc. There were lessons to be learned from these stories, but the singer never had to spell them out, because the tales were so vivid that listeners could draw their own conclusions.

It says something about Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, that the most sharply defined character in any song is a football stadium. On the title track, the former Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, acquires lungs, lips and tongue to address us from 2009 about its imminent destruction. This corporate edifice proves a terrific monologist, recounting its 34-year life and imagining its near future with humor (“these Meadowlands where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes”) and angst (“all this steel and these stories drift away to rust”). Springsteen doesn’t have to make explicit the connection to his generation’s own aging and looming demise, because the story is so engaging that the parallels are inescapable.

For the most part, Springsteen abandons this kind of storytelling on the rest of the album. The closest he comes is on “Jack of All Trades” and “Easy Money,” two songs about a blue-collar worker, maybe the same guy, who mows your lawn and cleans your gutter but finds himself falling further and further behind. One day he sticks a Smith & Wesson .38 in his belt under his coat, asks his wife to put on her best red dress, and they go out as if on a teenage date, looking to hold up one of “them fat cats” for some “easy money.” On the latter song, the jaunty Irish tune suggests the dizzy confidence of a reckless, last-chance gamble. But neither character acquires the sharp focus of the stadium on “Wrecking Ball.”

More often Springsteen doesn’t give us a detailed story with an implied message but rather a detailed message with an implied story. The album’s opening track and first single, for example, is “We Take Care of Our Own,” a rousing anthem that preaches the title’s motto as the key to the American spirit. There are no individual characters, no specific time or place, no passage of time, just a series of metaphors and allusions to reinforce the titular aphorism.

Much of the album is devoted to similar everyman hymns. The stomping rockabilly protest of “Shackled and Drawn” is not about a particular person but about any “workingman.” The techno-Celtic march of “Death to My Hometown” may be a sequel to “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A., but it replaces the original’s closely observed car ride past vacant stores with an op-ed writer’s generic rhetoric. The gospel-flavored “Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” scoop up a bunch of Biblical metaphors but leave behind the parables that gave those sayings some context.

It’s as if Springsteen has traded in one set of role models for another: the storytelling Woody Guthrie for the preaching Pete Seeger, the storytelling Bob Dylan for the preaching Phil Ochs, the storytelling Chuck Berry for the preaching Sam Cooke. Don’t get me wrong; Seeger, Ochs and Cooke wrote some terrific songs, but I don’t know how this can be seen as anything but a lowering of ambition.

Within these lower ambitions, Wrecking Ball has some wonderful moments. “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Shackled and Drawn” may be broad-brush, sloganeering anthems, but they’re very effective at what they set out to do. In the secular contexts of progressive politics or Americana rock ’n’ roll, these songs serve the same purpose as hymns in church. They’re designed not to change minds or deepen understanding but to buck up the spirit by pointing out that certain values are not only valid but shared by a large community. Whether it’s the tuneful guitar figure and ringing glockenspiel on the first song or the buzzing guitar and booming bass drum on the latter, these songs are stirring in all the best ways; they offer an irresistible invitation to sing along. They’re certainly much livelier than the laborious anthems on 2002’s The Rising—or the overwrought “Rocky Ground,” which, with its horns, choir, rapper, sluggish tempo and samples, is one of the most embarrassing tracks Springsteen has ever released.

Better than all of them is the new album’s final track, “We Are Alive,” a string-band hymn ingeniously presented as being sung from the graveyard by the ghosts of those who died seeking a better life—whether in an 1877 railroad strike, a 1963 Civil Rights protest or a 1999 Arizona border crossing. As in Springsteen’s best songs, the angst (“a slip of blood on a silver knife”) is balanced with humor (“worms crawling all around me”) and melody. Like all the songs on the new album, this one should sound better on stage than it does in the studio version.

That’s because Springsteen has been enabled by his co-producer Ron Aniello (Candlebox, Lifehouse) to return to his bad production habits of the ’70s, when every new song was encased within everything-including-the-kitchen-sink studio production, reinforced by constant second-guessing, in an effort to make each an enduring rock ’n’ roll monument. It was only when these songs were liberated by the spontaneity of his live show that their true greatness could be heard. With the help of his new manager/producer Jon Landau, Springsteen finally learned, between 1978 and 1987, how to make studio recordings as loose and vital as his live shows. Perhaps he overcompensated on such under-produced albums as The Ghost of Tom Joad, but the bombast has returned with a vengeance on his recent quartet of anthem albums: The Rising, Magic, Working on a Dream and Wrecking Ball.

The anomaly in his post-1987 albums is Devils & Dust which marked a return to his storytelling approach. Though not as consistent as The River or Nebraska, the 2005 disc did include five tracks that captured specific individuals in specific situations as expertly as anything he’d ever done. The songs about a Nevada prostitute, a housing-project teenager, a battered boxer, a drowned immigrant and a dusty highway worker drew the listener in so deeply that one could discover one’s own lessons without having them hammered home. The album proved that Springsteen hadn’t lost his storytelling touch but had merely put it aside for a while. One can only hope that he picks it up again soon.