To mass media, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of all great things about America. His work has crossed four decades, with a new persona for each different phase. He’s gone from the young, idealistic folky singer (“Growin’ Up”, “Blinded by the Light”) to the anthem maker (“Born to Run”, “Born in the USA”, “Thunder Road”) to the old man paying tribute to the past (The Seeger Sessions, “We Are Alive”).
At its root though, his music has always been about those in desperate times. So much of his music plays as easy listening, yet reveals harder truths, “Born In The USA” being the best example. The song sounds like a straight-faced jingoistic anthem. Yet for that one-in-a-million person who’s actually able to understand what he’s yelling, it’s a dark, bitter song about the realities of a post-Vietnam vet with nothing left to live for.
Springsteen’s music stands the test of time not because it motivates us towards the American Dream, but because it consoles us when we realize there is no American Dream to begin with. Life is life. People live and die, most doing little in between. His music encapsulates this reality.
And none of his albums do this better than Nebraska, his quiet masterpiece. The album, as so many of his albums, is a group of stories written to music. However, without his backing band, and with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica to work with, Springsteen finally matches the music to the lyrics. In the album, lovers ride on murdering sprees, brothers are pitted against one another, desperate men commit desperate crimes, and comfort is provided to none. Lyrics such as “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” and “Lost soul calling long-distance salvation” leave little to the imagination. The album is the spiritual equivalent of No Country For Old Men, only for Springsteen, there’s place for everyone, it’s just never where anyone wants to be.
His last song, “Reason to Believe” is the penultimate track. From my personal experience, after such a weighty album full of dead ends and dead men, I was looking for some sort of redemption in that last song. The track plays on this expectation brilliantly. It lays each verse out in a simple blues rhythm with just Springsteen and his old friends: guitar and harmonica. Each verse plays through horrible situations, leaving unforgettable images of despair. First a man sees a dead dog on the side of the road. Then a woman waits for her man every night to come back home. Next one baby is baptized as an old man passes away. Finally, a man waits for his bride at the altar, waiting forever. The dominoes keep falling, one after the other.
These verses could easily beat us to a pulp with zero redemption and zero hope in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Yet, the brilliance of Springsteen’s final song on Nebraska is the chorus, which after every one of the above-stated situations takes on the following form:
Lord won’t you tell us, tell us what does it mean
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.
The song suggests that we keep moving on, even though life itself gives us few, if any, reason to do so. And God gives us no help in figuring out why.
We continue to live, despite our lives.