Saturday, February 07, 2009

Review of "Working on a Dream"

Just for fun, I wrote up a sort of "theological review" of Working on a Dream, the 2009 album by one of my favorite musicians, Bruce Springsteen. Having good conversation about rock music, spirituality, and, well, Bruce Springsteen (thanks Rick!) is one of the things I've appreciated so much at LSTC.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, begins in a nightmare.

It hits the ground running with “Outlaw Pete,” a song that begins with a tall tale and music that recalls hooves running through open country, like one of the sprawling romps on the The Seeger Sessions studio and live discs. It's a sweeping, widescreen epic of an album opener, clocking in at over 8 minutes long.

But then, without warning, the story changes. Outlaw Pete has a vision of his own death and flees to the West, where he tries to settle down. It doesn’t work. A bounty hunter finds him and declares, eerily, the line that haunts Pete, and hunts him, all the way to his mysterious end: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done…”

It's a line, and a theme, reminiscent of Bruce's last album, Magic, an album full of dread, anger, and impending, almost inescapable doom, with song titles like "Your Own Worst Enemy," "You'll Be Comin' Down," and "Last to Die." But on this new disc, Springsteen responds to the gathering clouds with a rather different response. At first glance, it seems like maybe he's trying to disprove the line, to say that maybe, just maybe, we can undo the things we've done. Further spins, however, reveal something rather deeper shining up through the album's surface.

It's worth wondering, as a theological exercise if nothing else, whether Bruce believes we can undo the deepest brokenness with our own two hands. One of my favorite songs on 2007's Magic is a song chock-full of Biblical imagery – “the late afternoon sun fills the room with a mist like the garden before the fall / I watch your hands smooth the front of your blouse and seven drops of blood fall” – but the song’s chorus declares that “I’ll work for your love dear / what others may want for free / I’ll work for your love.”

It’s a gorgeously vivid song, with some kind of truth undeniably coursing through it, and yet - from a theological perspective, it's uncomfortably transactional for a Lutheran understanding of the deepest unmerited Love. (This may, I should mention, require some rethinking in light of a recent observation of the powerfully transactional nature of certain forms of religious pilgrimage.)

In light of this tendency of Springsteen’s – going all the way back to “Prove It All Night,” my least favorite Bruce song precisely for the amorous deficiencies it shares with “I’ll Work for Your Love” – it is not unreasonable to worry that the new disc, with "Working" so prominent in the title, would follow in a similar vein. The title track paints a landscape of human work, work, work as the singleminded path to achieving a far-off Dream: “Rain pourin’ down I swing my hammer / My hands are rough from working on a dream / Sunrise come I climb the ladder / The new day breaks and I’m working on a dream…” Later there are more images of doing, doing, doing, as if maybe Outlaw Pete really can undo those things he’s done, on his own, with his own two hands, as the track “What Love Can Do” repeats its title line over and over: “Let me show you what love can do / let me show you what love can do…”

These are gorgeous images, reflecting the way good work can feel. And yet there are those Lutherans who, sometimes rightly so, worry that this perhaps glorifies the work a bit too much, sanctifying our Babylonian towers and ultimately creating a kind of - ugh, I hate this term - works-righteousness. My own instincts tend to be less concerned about our ascribing righteousness to good work than about the tendency of our work, our achievements, our credentials becoming the whole of our lives, with nothing underneath and around us to catch us when our hands, when our ladders, when our love inevitably fails.

Yet a second listen – especially in Springsteen songs (see “USA, Born in the”) – sometimes reveals a surprise lying beneath a simple chorus. "What Love Can Do" begins: “There’s a pillar in the temple where I carved your name / There’s a soul sitting sad and blue / Now the remedies you’ve taken are all in vain / Let me show you what love can do…”

There it is - remedies taken in vain. Failure: So often the moment when we move into a deeper level of understanding... And so what kind of understanding do we move toward as the song weaves it course?

Here the last verse reveals the song’s – and the album’s secret: “Here we bear the mark of Cain / We’ll let the light shine through / Let me show you what love can do.” And there it is: “Let the light shine through.” A Source, a holy Flame that pours light through through the windows like a sunbeam, illuminating the work and the dreams of all of the characters in Bruce's new album, like an unmerited mark that the Creator gives even to Cain - or Outlaw Pete, for that matter.

This glittering truth about the world finds its way into every nook and cranny of a Springsteen album that opens itself up with the orchestral arrangements nearly every critic has noted, spreading its musical wings wide like a bird soaring overhead - or underneath. Look at the album’s liner notes: Every page is a photograph of a natural landscape in a vivid color: a golden wheat field at dawn; a forest illuminated by the deep blue of midnight. The truth conveyed in all this? It's rather simple, painfully so, really, as simple as what Chris calls the unabashed sentimentality of the title track:

Life is beautiful.

I know, I know, almost too simple, right? Except, that is, when it's illustrated by the poetry of music or the music of poetry. It’s like a rock and roll reverberation of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem “God’s Grandeur,” which is what I keep thinking of as I listen to the album over and over (thanks, Pastor Miller, for pointing me in GMH's direction so many months ago):

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

This, this is heart of Working on a Dream. For me, the album’s centerpiece is “Queen of the Supermarket.” Sure, it’s a cheesy story of a guy with a crush on the girl working the checkout counter. And yet, and yet: The music swells with a love so full, a heart so melted, and the lyrics, well…just read them: “With my shopping cart I move through the heart / Of a sea of fools so blissfully unaware / That they’re in the presence of something wonderful and rare…”

The song blooms, and the album’s other songs bloom around it, with lyrics that lift up the Grace coursing through every molecule of creation: “A beauty in the neighborhood / This lonely planet never looked so good…” More: “I watch the sun as it rises and sets / I watch the moon trace its arc with no regrets…” And finally, just before the closing song, a benediction: “In the hollow of the evening / As you lay your head to rest / May the evening stars scatter a shining / Crown upon your breast / In the darkness of the morning as the sky / Struggles to light / May the rising sun caress and / Bless your soul for all your life.”

Return, for a moment, to Magic, an album whose muscular moodiness expressed a feeling about an America that was rapidly losing its soul: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done…”

Yet in the 15 months since Magic was released, Bruce’s beloved country actually seemed to take some pretty important steps down the “Long Walk Home” that concluded Magic, a long walk back toward an America where “nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.” Whenever the songs on Working on a Dream were composed, they sound now like the songs of a people surprised by joy, a people who have tried their hardest to tear down their world, only to find – wonder of all gracious wonders – that Hope, Faith, and Love still remain, that somehow the Spirit still broods over (and under) a bent and broken world with "warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

Never one to offer easy answers, Bruce no doubt chose his album title carefully, releasing a week after Inauguration Day an album whose title track reminds us that the long walk home is still going to be a long walk, that the dream, as the song says, will no doubt, feel so far away, that there will be lots of grassroots working on the way to any dream. There is, still, a very, very long way to go. We are still, as Oscar Romero said, prophets of a future not our own.

But the Truth embedded beneath every song on the album, from the title track on down, is the surprise of an unmerited and ever-present Grace, a Grace as relentless as anything that hunts Outlaw Pete, a Grace that fills and re-fills us with every breath we take in a still-wondrous creation, a Grace that fills us for the work we are empowered to do and draws us closer, ever closer to little dreams and big ones alike.

These are the fields we work in; and this is the work we do. Our lucky day, indeed.

No comments: