In a world where, on the day when parts of the internet went dark to protest potential government censorship, Rob Lowe of all people tweeted the “scoop” that Peyton Manning is retiring (he’s not) and Mark Wahlberg claimed he would have prevented 9/11 (he didn’t), it’s not too silly for me to look way too far into the new Bruce Springsteen song that suddenly dropped at midnight.
In the music community, Bruce Springsteen is the stuff of rock legend: he’s certainly one of the greatest live acts of all time and among the most respected American songwriters south of Bob Dylan. But culturally, like his hero Dylan, Bruce has essentially become a political football.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps tiring of being punted back and forth, Bruce jumped off the sidelines (where he’d watched his song “Born in the USA” get co-opted as a patriotic anthem by Ronald Reagan and others) and jumped into the game by campaigning for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.
By early 2009, the guy who once used to shun any specific political affiliation and refuse TV appearances was now at the Presidential Inauguration and then the Super Bowl singing his latest jingle/anthem, “Working on a Dream.” That was an optimistic time, and the song was a hollow attempt to bring us all together for some kumba-ya call to roll up our sleeves and fix all that had broken in the Bush years. There was even some whistling in the song. Whistling.
Anyway, I didn’t like the song and thought the album was one of Springsteen’s worst ever. I’m a Bruce fanatic, but I’m not a total homer.
So now Bruce is coming back with what’s being described as his “angriest” album in a long time. Guess he woke up from that dream. The new single “We Take Care of Our Own,” is from the forthcoming March release Wrecking Ball. The title track was originally written to mark the closing of the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, but the title fits as a symbol of destruction for an album that we’re told addresses the current economic strife. The cover art, with Bruce and his signature Fender guitar behind the scrawled lettering of the title, evokes a “This Machine Kills Fascists” vibe, perhaps a nod to his other hero Woody Guthrie.
On first listen, “We Take Care of Our Own” chugs its way down E Street like most catchy Bruce songs. On the surface, it sounds like just a trite anthem: “Wherever this flag is flown,” he dares to sing as an echo to the “We take care of our own” refrain. The guy has been misunderstood as a jingoistic flag-waver for the last 25 years and now he’s gonna literally fly a flag right there in the hook of his new hit single? Really?
Ah, we forget (and some don’t realize) how sly Bruce can be. He knows his songs will be scrutinized and examined through a sociopolitical lens, and possibly co-opted yet again in an election year. So while the title and the flag imagery sound like a rah-rah yay America platitudes about how awesome we are…. Listen closely and you’ll hear the everyman rocker bearing witness to every man for himself; really wondering why we don’t actually take care of our own. And the only ones doing so are the politicians and the corporations that own them. They’re certainly taking care of their own (each other) while the rest of us are left to whistle while we work on a dream.
On 1980’s The River, Bruce asked “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” Well 2012 Bruce isn’t quite ready to overtly call out President Obama as a liar (at least on this track), but he does sing “I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone, those good intentions have gone dry as a bone” in the first verse.
The track starts with pounding drums and high-pitched guitar noise. Compared to the safe pop/schlock of “Working on a Dream,” this sounds like battle drums and sirens. As it settles into that first verse, there’s a subtle percussion shuffling akin to a Simon & Garfunkel track almost buried in the mix. Once the song kicks in and the guitars get a little heavier, Bruce knifes through America, not the right or left, but slicing right down the center: “From Chicago to New Orleans/From the muscle to the bone.”
The very next lines get specific, as he reminds us “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome, we needed help but the cavalry stayed home.” He’s invoking Katrina, 2005, but the next line updates the message and generalizes it to apply to our tone-deaf politicians who only take care of themselves and the special interests who pay their way into office while the economic storm floods us all out of our homes: “There aint no one hearing the bugle blowin’.”
A generation ago, Springsteen followed the optimism of “pulling out of here to win” in “Thunder Road” by writing a gloomy response called “The Promise” (and what happens when it’s broken). This time he follows the hope of “Working on a Dream” with a line that repeats “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” The everyman rocker winces at every man for himself. Again he toys with patriotic language to essentially ask “What the fuck happened to the American dream? Where’s the promise?” Just like he used the pride of chanting “Born in the USA” to wonder why people who were born here and fought in Vietnam were abandoned upon their return.
That’s what I mean about Bruce being sly. He’s dressing up this new song with lines like “wherever this flag is flown” and “sea to shining sea,” this time knowing and expecting that it will be misunderstood. And if/when some politician tries to play this at a rally or make this anthem their own, they’ll end up admitting the obvious: “We Take Care of Our Own.”
Musically, this is classic (even if somewhat generic) Springsteen from the standpoint of the piano/glockenspiel sound tinkling atop the pulsing guitars and drums. It’s got a bounce not unlike “Badlands” and “The Rising,” but with the late Clarence Clemons’ saxophone noticeably absent.
If you don’t like Bruce Springsteen, there’s plenty here not to like: the usual Bruce-isms like the la-la’s in the outro tailor-made to be echoed in concert arenas, the aforementioned flag imagery and faux patriotism, and that rich-man-in-a-poor-mans-shirt shtick he’s been riding for most of his career. But for Bruce fans from the fanatic to the casual, it’s a welcome return to respectability and perhaps a sign that he might have one more great album left in him.