I’ve got a an actual review of the new Springsteen record coming up (short version: it’s quite good!), but I wanted to make a separate comment today about the critical response to Springsteen. I was reading the Pitchfork review and, surprise surprise, it’s grounded primarily in an unfavorable comparison to Nebraska. How tiresome.
Look, Nebraska is a good album. It absolutely is. And it is perfectly reasonable for someone to consider it the best of his albums. But the industry of people for whom it serves as the terminal benchmark for all things Springsteen is just incredibly tiresome. People laud Nebraska because it’s gritty and quiet and stark, and so it doesn’t make them uncomfortable like the earnestness (naïveté) they perceive in the rest of his work. No one is going to make fun of you for liking Nebraska.
But that is a lazy and, frankly, reflects a failure of aesthetic imagination. There is a tremendous amount of complexity in his work over the decades. It’s just silly to pretend it’s not there because he writes big rock songs, or because he’s not afraid to utilize powerful symbols of patriotism, family, belief, and movement. Yes, there are plenty of Springsteen clichés. He obviously likes metaphors about trains and cars: they symbolize the idea of freedom, of escape. But it’s not just that: they also symbolize the failures of those ideas. You’ve got the only possibility of redemption in the engine of a car in “Thunder Road” – but you’ve also got people wasting their lives in cars in “Racing in the Streets.”
He loves to valorize hard-work, physical labor. A kind of blue-collar ideal. And of course this sometimes descends into silliness. But it’s wonderful that he continues to care. And if you consider the whole scope of his work, the archetype is by no means uncritically affirmed. He emphasizes the power of nostalgia, but it’s not simply about wanting things to be the way they used to be. He doesn’t want to return to the Depression – he wants to remind us of how protest music can capture an ideal. He doesn’t think we can just go back to Youngstown the way it used to be. But he wants to remind us of what we have given up in this brave new world.
Basically: Springsteen is a troubadour in the old sense. He helps us to build our cultural narratives. In individual moments it can trend toward the absurd. But it’s sloppy thinking to simply condemn his more earnest moments as somehow inferior to the darker elements. There is tremendous power in our dreams, and I’m glad that someone like him still cares enough about that power to try and make something of them. In a way, it’s far more risky.
It’s no surprise that Springsteen gave us the best musical response to 9-11. It would be easy to make an angry record about 9-11 (and the way it was used to develop a War on Terror). It would be easy to make a mournful record. And it seems like it would be easy to make a hopeful record about 9-11, about the possibility of redemption. But that last thing is not actually easy at all. You have to be willing to put your heart on your sleeve and genuinely feel. And that’s very scary. But that’s the defining feature of Springsteen. He is never afraid to give it a shot.
Sometimes he misses, and the results can be embarrassing. But he’s a great artist because he still finds reasons to believe, because he seems to really think that music can make a difference, because he continues to give everything he’s got in his concerts. You can laud Nebraska all you want, but lamenting that he didn’t keep remaking it just reflects precisely the kind of fear that Springsteen is willing to shrug off. And I love him for it.