The arc of
Bruce Springsteen's career is described by the journey from the
bursting energy of "Born to Run" to the new album's "Long Walk
Home," with its only solace in the line "everybody has a reason
to begin again."
also hearkens back to the Spector-like Wall of Sound of Born
to Run and is Springsteen's most ornate and accessible album
ever, with bold and catchy refrains that vividly convey the heart
of each song. But, as with that long walk, this album tends to
be reflective, and all that old youthful exuberance has hit a
wall of uncertainty.
that defines Magic most clearly is "Your Own Worst Enemy."
It doesn't offer hope. But if there isn't hope, there's beauty.
Springsteen opened Born to Run by invoking the spirit of
Roy Orbison. Magic is the closest he's come to channeling
that great singer. Listen to the way "Your Own Worst Enemy" builds,
almost one instrument at a time, with an urgency reminiscent of
Orbison's "Running Scared," and ends with Springsteen's voice
sailing up and away on the last few syllables, just as Orbison
did at the end of "In Dreams." Like Orbison, Springsteen seems
to be dreaming of victory even as he admits the illusion of it.
It's a gorgeous
melody that begins with a simple piano chord, ringing like a bell.
When the vocal comes in, sleigh bells and baroque strings, mostly
cello, give the song all the confection of a Christmas record.
The irony is that the lyric is a portrait of a criminal lying
awake at night, dreams gone, knowing his days of freedom are numbered.
Only Springsteen uses the second person, so the criminal isn't
just anyone. It's us, his listeners, lying there in that bed,
our fingerprints "left clumsily at the scene," as the band kicks
is as ornate as anything since Pet Sounds, complete with
harpsichord and layer upon layer of Springsteen's overdubbed vocals
repeating, "Your own worst enemy has come
to town." It's
hard to miss the irony. Though he once had a hit record connecting
with his audience over the fate of our mutual hometowns, today
Springsteen mulls over the fact that we may be, in some way, part
of the threat.
is upside down," he sings recalling a time when we felt some measure
of comfort and certainty, but the tambourine and more elaborate
musical figures that answer these thoughts seem to mock us.
Magic also grapples with the reality that, almost 40 years
down the road, the world is in a darker place than it was
when he started. In fact, the country has seemed to grow
cynical about its own dreams, and the body count climbs
the bridge, and Springsteen uses it like Orbison did on "In Dreams,"
where the singer woke from his dream. Here, he puts us in front
of a shop window, reminding us of one he sang about years ago,
the one where he saw a picture of himself as a local hero. Now,
the person looking back feels like a failure. At this point, it
seems most clear that he's including himself in this reckoning.
After all, we've followed him on this 30-year ride, and it's brought
us sleeplessness and dread.
measures of the bridge are punctuated by tympani followed by door
chimes, as if someone's knocking at the door. No need to answer.
We all know who our own worst enemy always is, and who wants to
the lyrics give way to layers of "ah's" that seek to elevate the
moment but wind up sounding like a great sigh. And then the music
drops back to the original piano chord, ringing like sleigh bells.
In the last
verse, the singer calls us out for hiding from our own reflection,
and the lines are answered by funky riffs from Danny Federici's
organ. They "amen" the honesty, but they can't erase the truth.
The voice that once called for his city in ruins to "rise up"
is admitting that "everything is falling down."
In the song's
final two lines, Springsteen addresses the American flag, the
one he once tried to reclaim for the best of its values with the
cover of his biggest selling album, Born in the U.S.A.
Though it once "flew so high" it has "drifted into the sky," and
Springsteen's voice literally reaches for it - and for the Roy
Orbison in him. He doesn't have Orbison's voice, which only makes
it more moving when he hits the note, as the flag floats off,
leaving us behind. Springsteen set out to make music that symbolized
all that was best in that dream, but even that has gotten away
from him - especially that.
does reach the note, all the instruments draw up like someone's
stomped the brakes. The band drops away, leaving only the distant
tolling of church bells. It's a moment of naked reckoning. The
journey that started looking for a place in the sun has wound
up with nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.
many ways, the Bruce Springsteen story has been a struggle to
find the integrated, liberated community suggested by rock &
roll. At a time when Rock had become a term for white music cut
off from its black roots, Springsteen broke onto the charts mixing
rock guitar with the sound of black girl group records. He wound
up with a nearly all white audience with nostalgia for the black
music of its youth.
songs for black artists including Gary U.S. Bonds and Donna Summer
and found himself covered by the Pointer Sisters, and he joined
integrated groups to fight hunger, human rights abuse and apartheid,
but he never found the cultural synthesis he seemed to be seeking.
In fact, when he toured with a mostly black band in 1992, when
radio formats and concert audiences were more divided than ever,
he found much of his core audience rejected the project.
despite the fact that his music spoke of compassion and liberation,
the country grew colder and more repressive. When the World Trade
Center fell, he began building unity around the grief the nation
was facing, but by the end of the tour he was raging against war
war came, mocking his career-long effort to make sure - with "Lost
in the Flood," with "Born in the U.S.A.," with his cover of Edwin
Starr's "War" - we learned something from Vietnam, he made his
most desolate album to date, Devils & Dust, and then
he toured with a completely different band singing traditional
Springsteen's most musically ambitious record since Born in
the USA, shows what inspiration he gained by stepping away.
But it also grapples with the reality that, almost 40 years down
the road, the world is in a darker place than it was when he started.
In fact, the country has seemed to grow cynical about its own
dreams, and the body count climbs every day.
At the heart
of Magic, "Your Own Worst Enemy" expresses Springsteen's
need to reckon with this reality and his role in it. Perhaps most
importantly, he's using the second person to ask listeners to
do the same kind of reckoning.
asks us to think hard at the wall of impasse. Springsteen used
to say, "nobody wins unless everybody wins," and it's never been
more clear that we can't get past this wall without some real
help. His stage can't be the mainstage, and he and his band can't
be left alone on it.
own worst enemy has come
to town." At the heart of
Magic, Your Own Worst Enemy expresses Springsteen's need
to reckon with this reality and his role in it. Perhaps
most importantly, he's using the second person to ask listeners
to do the same kind of reckoning.
One of the
harsh truths of idolatry is that fans tend only to hear their
favorite artist. As if there were no other music, no radio, only
Bruce Springsteen records and Bruce Springsteen concerts. The
dreams of liberation become their own self referential world:
wisdom about the sorry state of today's radio justifies this isolation.
And if they do listen, Springsteen's core fan base is directed
towards formats that cater to an ageing demographic far removed
from today's version of the Crystals - ironic because "Born to
Run" is inconceivable without "Da Doo Ron Ron" as inspiration.
Springsteen's fans found themselves listening to a young black
woman like Keisha Cole? On the title track of her latest, "Just
Like You," she's staring into a mirror, too, and recognizing she
has the same general strengths and weaknesses as her fans. Suppose
they heard Rihanna's hit album Good Girl Gone Bad, on which
she reckons the cost of her experience, different from Springsteen's
but comparable. Or if they paid attention to the words of Alabama
rapper Rich Boy, asking himself, on his current hit, "What did
you do this for? What difference did you make?" Houston rapper
Chamillionaire, on his new album's opener, "The Morning News,"
itemizes the same dirty tricks that Springsteen alludes to on
Magic. What might Springsteen's audience gain by hearing these
records in dialogue with "Your Own Worst Enemy"?
to contemporary hip-hop radio is to hear people who've been beat
down personally and politically still having the strength to dream
big dreams. Keisha Cole shows that vision beautifully in her hit
single with Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim, "Let It Go." So does La
La, who currently tops the Latin charts with her anthem of unity,
"Homegirls." Brooklyn rapper Fabolous and R&B crooner Ne-Yo
sing "You Make Me Better." And that's the theme of Arab Floridian
DJ Khaled's summer hit record, "We Takin' Over," on which Akon,
T.I. (the self-proclaimed King of the South) and New Orleans'
Little Wayne call for those most reviled by the system to rise
fans listening to Springsteen's staple favorite, "The Promised
Land" back-to-back with that record. Both songs would gain something
out of that dialogue - one suggests idealism worth aiming for,
while the other has the audacity to believe in the peoples' ability
to make it real. Springsteen's music needs just such a larger
context - after all, that's the connection he's sought from the
Magic by crying, "Is there anybody alive out there?" And he
ends it with a wounded soldier, "adrift with the heroes of the
Devil's Arcade." Isn't Springsteen himself, if not the soldier,
one of those heroes adrift? Aren't we all?
Springsteen's doing what he knows how to do, and doing it as well
as he ever has, but he needs help. So do we. Maybe, by listening
to Springsteen as a part of a larger dialogue, his fans can begin
to find a way to build a real land of hope and dreams. That's
what we ought to be thinking about after the music's over, during
that long walk home.
Alexander is one of the associate editors of Rock & Rap Confidential,
the no-holds-barred music newsletter. Email them at [email protected]
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