Early 90’s Springsteen and the Duality of Human Nature

The cold wet air could best be described as a “shitmist”.  On the way from Oklahoma City to Dallas.   In the back of the van trying to unlock why, even in the midst of his supposed slump, the early 90’s,  Bruce Springsteen was still able to create works that have staying power.  Strip him of his band, bring in a bunch of session players that lack any discernable personality, record things in a way that is somewhat stiff, and there is still something there if you pay attention. 

With every wish there comes a curse

Listen to the song With Every Wish from his Human Touch album.  It has a dark seductive power to it as it examines someone whose dreams fall short.  In fact I think it is because Springsteen never shies away from the hard truths of reality that his songs are more than one dimensional.  

Any life when viewed from the inside, is simply a series of defeats.
     –  George Orwell

In the midst of life we are in death, etc.
     – Morrissey

This is not to say Springsteen’s music lacks hope or love or joy.  In fact his music is often quite life affirming despite how often darkly realistic his lyrics can be.  They often deal with a loss of innocence as someone grows older and comes to terms with the harsh realities of the world.  But even in spite of this, his characters often carry on.  Although there are characters of his that are on the long slide to oblivion, many also often find love or are determined to bear hardship. 

Springsteen is too smart to ignore complexity.  There are no easy fixes.  Love in and of itself will not solve all problems.  Things can be made better, but there is hard work to do if it is to be so.  Dreams can just as easily circle back to haunt you.  He never forgets the passion of the teenager, but he also never ignores the struggle of adulthood.  It is this duality that gives his work power. 

This duality, this complexity in outlook, means that even his lesser albums have moments that are worth recommending.   I think his most misunderstood album, Human Touch,  has many such moments.  Although it does suffer somewhat from the production and choice of musicians, and it is not a front to back masterpiece, there are a lot of songs where the writing is really sharp.  He also writes a lot of great melodies that bring the lyrics to life, whereas the slightly more critically accepted Lucky Town is slightly too sepia-toned for me, despite a couple great songs. 

I think if you are a fan of his, like I am, and you have ignored this period, it is worth revisiting.  There are also some stellar out takes from this period on the Tracks box set, especially Gave it a Name.  It is clear that Springsteen had read Flannery O’Connor by this point, as he adopts some of her haunted Biblical language to deal with these adulthood struggles. 

As one of our country’s greatest artists, Springsteen is often reduced to a caricature, like many larger than life figures.  (He did himself no favors in the propaganda films serving as music videos that accompanied Born in the U.S.A.)  But he has remained someone that constantly searches for meaning in a fallen world, always aware of the light and dark in our national character.  

Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O’Connor

In the fields of the lord
Stood Abel and Cain
Cain slew Abel ‘neath the black rain
At night he couldn’t stand the guilt or the blame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Billy got drunk, angry at his wife
He hit her once, he hit her twice
At night he’d lie in bed, he couldn’t stand the shame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Pa told me “son, one thing I know is true
Poison snake bites you, you’re poison too”
At night I can feel that poison runnin’ ’round my veins

Gave it a Name by Bruce Springsteen.  As those of you that have been reading along know, I have been diving back into Springsteen’s catalogue.  This is a lesser known song off of his Tracks box set.  Ever since I was a teenager this song has moved me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.  I have never been a religious person, but the haunted Biblical language in this song has always appealed to me.  It’s poetic and yet simple at the same time.  It’s as if this song is carved from stone. 

I love the writing of Flannery O’Connor and I know Springsteen read her as well.  Wise Blood is one of my favorite novels and her short stories are simply some of the best American short stories ever.  I’ve read the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find numerous times, always taken in by it at every reading.  (Springsteen would later go on to steal that title for a song.)  A lot of people call her writing southern grotesque, which is a term she never liked.  Her writing is truly unique.  It is infused with a good deal of the same kind of Old Testament poetry which gives it a timeless power. 

I also like the way Springsteen lets the last verse hang.  In the lyrics as well as the song there is no third chorus.  It leaves the song unresolved and mysterious.  Art is often at its best when it is not tied up in a neat little package for you at the end.  It allows the imagination to fill in the blanks.