They just stand back and let it all be… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part Two)

First up, a disclaimer: This series was supposed to be two parts long. This second installment has taken as long as it has to kick in because I realise whittling down my ‘short list’ to a ‘final list’ has proven impossible. As such… this is now Part 2 of 3.

So Part 3 and Playlist to follow. Let’s get back to it!

Thunder Road

“The screen door slams”

Springsteen has often said that in Born To Run he made a conscious effort to stream down his lyrics and write lyrics that were a little more direct. He didn’t lose the poetry or power in his lyrics, just trimmed the fluff. That’s evinced from the very first line on the album. ‘Thunder Road’ is full of great imagery – like those ‘Skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets’ – but that opening line is as perfect as it gets. There’s a universality to it – this isn’t a song about Jersey or NYC, it could be anywhere – and a sense of romance and promise as the screen door ‘slams’ on the past and Mary looks out and, presumably, pulls out to win.

All I’m Thinkin’ About

“Little boy carrying a fishing pole, little girl picking huckleberries from off of the vine, brown bag filled with a little green toad”

Devils and Dust is the third and most recent of Springsteen’s ‘acoustic’ albums but not as songs aren’t as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska. As with both of those, Devils.. is a ‘story’ song album and while some songs aren’t as strong as they could be there’s still a lot well crafted lyrics in there – three of my favourite’s come from this late-period collection including ‘All I’m Thinkin About’ which is just chock full of great, poetic visuals that come close to early Springsteen lines.

One Step Up

“Mmm she ain’t lookin’ too married. And me, well, honey I’m pretending”

In its 1987 review of Tunnel of Love, Rolling Stone called it “an unsettled and unsettling collection of hard looks at the perils of commitment. A decade or so ago, Springsteen acquired a reputation for romanticizing his subject matter; on this album he doesn’t even romanticize romance.” The album is one of my favourites and ‘One Step Up’ is full of great lines from the firs ‘Woke up this morning the house was cold’… yeah… the furnace wasn’t burning but this is a song of allegory and Springsteen was finding his house cold and a marriage that wasn’t burning either but that line.. “Me, honey, I’m pretending”… of course, Tunnel.. being the album of uncertain minds that it is it’s followed by “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms, the music was never-ending. We danced as the evening sky faded to black” as the contrast between dream and reality hits in.

I’m On Fire

“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my skull”

As mentioned in Part 1 – the thrill of Springsteen’s archival releases is hearing lyrics being worked on in situ as it were. Catching rough drafts of lyrics that would reach fruition years later attached to very different, musically, tunes. Keen-eared listeners to The Promise will have picked up a huge chunk of ‘I’m On Fire’s lyrics being worked on in ‘Spanish Eyes’. The opening couplet “Hey little girl, is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone” is right there as are the “does he do to you” lines but, somewhere in the intervening few years it became a more brooding song of frustrated desire and that line ‘edgy and dull’ is what transforms it for me. Absolutely love that line.

Lost In The Flood

“The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway, he walks through town all alone”

Springsteen’s first Vietnam vet reference and on his first album. ‘Lost in the Flood’ is just an all-out lyrical high with some great visuals and stories that I can never get enough of, it’s probably why I’ve kept my ‘Bronx’ Best Apostle’ t-shirt for so long. There’s nuns runnin ‘bald’, Eighth Avenue sailors, street fights and cops putting ‘that cat from the Bronx’ right away. But, as scene setters go, that opening line takes some beating.

Devils and Dust

“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”

Devils and Dust has songs on it that date back to Ghost of Tom Joad and I can’t help but feel that it was writing the title tune that gave Springsteen the ‘key’ he needs for each album to tie them all together – it may will be why this song, written in anger at the end of the Bush years – gave it’s title to the collection. What do you do when what you’re doing to survive kills who you are?

You’re Missing

“Children are asking if it’s alright, will you be in our arms tonight?”

For all it’s songs of finding solace in love and music and each other, The Rising would not be the powerful response to 9/11 if it didn’t handle the overwhelming loss experienced by so many and rendered it as powerfully as it did. ‘You’re Missing’ is a heavy hitter with it’s subtlety and perfectly captures the loss of someone’s physicality when everything else in the world remains. “I thought, ‘What do you miss?’ You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody. I’ve had people close to me who died. I remember when I was young, that aching to touch the person again was very, very strong and it was very painful to realize that it just couldn’t happen.”

Lines like “Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair, papers on the doorstep, you’re not there” get that across but it’s the “children are asking” line that does it. That loss… the kids needing that hug…  man he nails it.

Badlands

“Talk about a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night with a fear so real. Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Well don’t waste your time waiting!”

Woah oh oh BADLANDS! Darkness.. is my favourite Springsteen album and up there with my favourite albums period. For all its seriousness and samurai approach to songwriting, there are some uplifting, inspirational messages in there just like this and…

Prove It All Night

“Well everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist. There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this. Well, if dreams came true, aw, wouldn’t that be nice? But this ain’t no dream, we’re living all through the night. You want it? You take it, you pay the price”

As he’d latter rue himself for doing in ‘Better Days’… don’t sit around waiting for your lift to begin: get up and get it done because the world isn’t going to just give it to you.

Death to My Hometown

“The greedy thieves who came around, and ate the flesh of everything they found
whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now”

Musically and overall this is not even up in my Top 20. Wrecking Ball has some strong songs but I don’t put it too high in Springsteen’s overall catalogue. However – as Aphoristcal commented on the previous installment – even when he’s not at his finest musically, he’s remained a very good lyricist. I’d go a little further and say that as he’s matured and widened his experiences he’s not only gotten better but his lyrics (when he’s not simply repeating lines for emphasis) remain great and Wrecking Ball is full of examples of Springsteen using  a cracking lyric to rage against the 2008 economic crisis. I especially enjoy ‘Death to My Hometown’s use of archaic references to destructive forces like ‘cannonballs’ and blood soaked ground. Not to mention the tying in of ‘My Hometown’ – a song so many associate with warmth – being torn apart.

4 thoughts on “They just stand back and let it all be… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part Two)

  1. A nice selection even if I don’t know all of the later ones. Your focus on the lyrics points up what a great short story writer Springsteen would have been had a chosen that path. Bruce admitted that in his early days he was overly verbose: “Madman drummers bummers, Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps.” Not nearly as meaningful as the lyrics you quote. But they do have a rhythm and beauty all their own.

  2. Speaking of which, I love this passage: “They sent some dude with a calling card, he said, ‘Do what you like, but don’t do it here,’ Well, I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground and asked him which was the way back home. He said, “Take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then, boy, you’re on your own.”

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