It has been almost 35 years since Bruce Springsteen’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., first appeared in January 1973, and his music has been one of my most enduring companions in the journey from teenager to middle-aged adult.
His newest album, Magic, appeared last week amid the kind of political divide that seems to characterize all of American culture these days.
When the corresponding concert tour opened Oct. 2–and made the news because of Springsteen’s on-stage comments about “voter suppression,” “illegal wiretaps,” and “attacks on the Constitution”–the album release had an instant political context. This context was the primary subject of a segment on the CBS television program, “60 Minutes,” which aired Oct. 7.
The voice which emerges from Magic has taken on the gravity of age and audibly carries the weight of four decades of musical toil. Perhaps more than with any other performer, new material from Springsteen demands recollection of the full canon of his work.
After the playful exuberance of his first two albums, which were not big commercial successes, Born to Run (1976) not only carried him to new heights of popularity, but offered the slightest of hints at the desperate, painful anthems which would fill Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). Serious issues of faith first appeared on that album as the voice in the anguished “Adam Raised a Cain” lamented, “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past,” and the two lovers in “Racing in the Streets” left behind faded dreams to “ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.”
Such overt biblical and theological references gave rise to rumors of a coming religious awakening, which seemed to be realized when the sparse Nebraska (1983) ended with the longing for atonement in “My Father’s House” and the tentative hopefulness of “Reason to Believe.”
The enormous popularity of Born in the U.S.A. the very next year may have disrupted that trajectory, but it also contained the seeds a new political activism in “My Hometown’s” portrait of the industrial Midwest devastated by Reaganomics.
Bruce was becoming for the factory town what John Mellencamp was becoming for family farms, a mourner of a lost way of life and a protester against the forces taking it away. Both singers drank deeply from the wells of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. When I saw Springsteen in concert in 1981, on The River tour, he was already playing “This Land is Your Land,” introducing the Guthrie classic as a counter-voice to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
This counter-voice reappeared in Springsteen’s stunning response to 9/11, The Rising (2002), as Americans ran headlong back into the arrogant comfort of Berlin’s arms. The title song of The Rising ends with a long list of oppositions (love-tears, glory-sadness, mercy-fear, memory-shadow) reminiscent of Seeger’s adaptation of Ecclesiastes 3 in “Turn,Turn, Turn,” resisting the easy presumption of a divine right to all things good.
The appearance of more overt religious themes in The Rising and Devils and Dust (2005) may have finally picked up the line of development left off after Nebraska, but revealed in retrospect that, beneath the surface, Springsteen’s music always seethed with religion. Moreover, from the beginning, it also contained a thoughtful restlessness that must sooner or later explode into activism. These religious and political impulses met in the title song of Devils and Dust:
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
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust
The stage was set for Magic.
The anti-war activism is most apparent in “Last To Die,” a song carefully constructed around the line that made a young John Kerry famous during his testimony before the United States Senate in 1971. Springsteen’s accompanying questions, “Whose blood will spill? Whose heart will break?” bring global concerns of strife and the politics of the war in Iraq down to the human, personal level.
The song called “Magic” points to the dangers of torture and the resentment it creates against the United States, which Springsteen believes has given away its freedom in a misguided effort to protect it.
So leave everything you know,
And carry only what you fear.
“Long Walk Home” tells the story of a soldier returning home to a place he does not recognize and which does not recognize him. The promises of his father, that “certain things are set in stone, who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t,” seem broken.
The album ends with “Devil’s Arcade,” a poignant metaphor for Iraq in 2007:
You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made
Somebody made a bet, somebody paid.
The cool desert morning, then nothin’ to save
Just metal and plastic where your body caved.
The “60 Minutes” interview included a question about the controversial nature of the new album, and Springsteen responded with his list of examples of how America’s core values have been given away in exchange for the perception of safety, a list much like the one he had recited in the Oct. 2 concert.
What he added was a clear expression of the role of the artist, specifically the songwriter, in the defining of a culture. “I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality ¦. The American idea is a beautiful idea. It needs to be preserved, served, protected and sung out.”
The young soldier whose voice sings “Long Walk Home” sees that distance stretching out in front of him, and we can only hope to make the journey with him. The Boss has pointed us in the right direction.
Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.