A complete course in modern culture in one album
Brisbane songwriter maestro Robert Forster fell into an old but reliable trap last month when he used Bruce Springsteen as a contrast at the beginning of a brilliant critique of the Dirty Three’s latest opus Toward the Low Sun.
After listing four song titles from Springsteen’s show-stopper record, Wrecking Ball, Forster says the names of the tunes give away the whole disc as a dud. “...these song titles, shop-worn and spare even by Springsteen’s standards, offer little encouragement to listen to an album that seems to be stuck in old ground,” he wrote in The Monthly.
Never judge a book by its cover, our betters told us when we were young and learning. Never a truer word, as they say in the backstreet bars of any town with a musical heart.
We don’t know if Forster has copped a listen to Springsteen’s record and, if so, what he thinks of it but I’d be staggered if he stuck with his sound unheard appraisal. Just between us, this is one of the records of the year and sits on the very top shelf of Springsteen’s 40 year career as a singer-songwriter-rock’n’roller.
It’s core is an idea. First, the United States of America, sinking into a morass of inequality in the twilight of the Bush years, is hit by a Wall Street-created economic crisis that rivaled the Great Depression and eventually swept the OECD world and still has national economies shaking.
The thing that riles Springsteen is that while the everyman and everywoman suffered through unemployment, smashed pension funds and destruction of household wealth, no banker was really held to account.
On the almost lamenting Jack of all Trades, Springsteen sings “The bank man grows fatter, the working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again” before drawing this cold hearted conclusion, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight”.
It evokes the kind of anger we heard from black music in the 1930s, such as How Can Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.
We’ve already had a look at the early released single from this disc, We Take Care of Our Own, the bitter spit towards the treatment of everyday Americans in the first decade of the new century.
It fits with the rest of the record from the startlingly arresting Death to My Hometown (“They destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones”), the dirge-like This Depression (“And I’ve always been strong/But I’ve never felt so weak/And all my prayers have gone for nothing/I’ve been without love”) and the pumping Shackled and Drawn (“Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong/Down here below we’re shackled and drawn”). You get the picture.
The music is classic Springsteen - big, swirling guitars pushed along by a rhythm section that could kick start a mining boom, keys that take you though the kaleidoscope of shade and light, horns that soar with rocket ships and all manner of strings that know instinctively the weight needed at just the right time.
There’s even a trio of Irish songs - tunes that channel the Dropkick Murphys for example. Death to My Hometown is almost a jig, Shackled and Drawn sounds like an Irish independence war cry and American Land is as rollicking as anything you’ll hear in a Dublin bar.
Those who buy the record on iTunes or such will get a couple of extra tunes, including the majestic hymn Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale). Told with sparse and haunting instrumentation, this is a spiritual exploration of man and nature, suggesting we’ve outstayed our welcome and given ourselves back to a primeval state.
“A beast should you wander in its path/On your ship and your flesh you serve/You disappear from this world/‘Till you’ve been swallowed up,” he sings in what could be close to the most beautiful tune Springsteen has recorded.
Anyone who has had the pleasure to see and hear Springsteen’s keynote address at last month’s South by South-West music conference in Austin, Texas will understand what this New Jersey native brings to music and our appreciation of it (here’s the vision and here’s the text).
It’s the last word on music now and in our era. In the best passage that goes to the core of what music is still about he says this: “So as the records that my music was initially released on give way to a cloud of ones and zeroes, and as I carry my entire record collection since I was thirteen in my breast pocket, I’d like to talk about the one thing that’s been consistent over the years, the genesis and power of creativity, the power of the songwriter, or let’s say, composer, or just creator.
“So whether you’re making dance music, Americana, rap music, electronica, it’s all about how you are putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.
We live in a post-authentic world. And today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history; and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters.”
Along with his “listen up, youngsters” moment when he exposes his theft of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, this is all you need to know. Take it as not just a lecture but a complete course in modern culture.
Dave Marsh, rock critic and writer extraordinaire, had this to say about the address: “Raves arrived immediately, but I don’t think anyone’s used the term that best describes it for me: Generosity. The speech gave far more than it took and it held back on self-promotion.”
Marsh, who can be excused for his enthusiasm - he’s written four books on Springsteen and his wife Barbara Carr shares the Boss’s managing duties with Jon Landau - but he is spot on with his conclusion.
“The Wrecking Ball songs (at the Moody he played eight of the eleven) have the strongest connecting thread of any Springsteen album since The River - from the furious social questions of We Take Care of Our Own, through the economic despair and determination of Jack of All Trades and Death to My Hometown to the glorious anthem of hope Rocky Ground - with its invocation of God, who does not answer—to the final, unambiguous call to action, We Are Alive,” writes Marsh. Marsh’s full article can be found at his website.
This is one record you cannot live without. Make 2012 complete and get a hold of it. Then hope he adds Australia to his schedule when he finishes his current tour plan in Helsinki at the end of July.
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