Monday, October 08, 2007

On time, more or less: The next Dylan

About 10 years ago, 56-year-old Bob Dylan released an album called Time Out of Mind, the first of three absolutely captivating projects (with Love and Theft and Modern Times) that prove you don't have to be a young buck to be a musical genius. I dare say his latest work is among the best of his career. I have a small pile of Dylan albums in the collection, but it's these three that I keep coming back to.

When Bruce Springsteen was a young buck, a lot of people tried to pigeon-hole him as "the next Dylan," and he has been that only in the sense that he has been the pre-eminent poet-songwriter of his generation (if Dylan and Springsteen really can be counted as belonging to different generations). If the analogy is correct, the Boss has been a little late getting to the aging-genius stage where Dylan has been for a decade. But 58-year-old Springsteen appears to have arrived there at last.

Like Dylan before him, Springsteen probably hasn't produced an album in a couple of decades that is pretty much completely satisfying from beginning to end. Magic is it. Strike that, your honor – In Concert: MTV Unplugged and Live in New York City are awesome albums, but they're a tad short on new material.

A first listen tells you Bruce and the E Street Band are as good as ever; they slip the new songs on like a well-broken-in pair of jeans. The sound is familiar but just new enough to be fun and interesting, strong, rollicking. It's just a solid, solid rock 'n' roll record. Then it's time to sit back with the lyrics sheet and get the full experience. And, as usual with the best Springsteen, that's when the Magic happens.

A number of reviews have been published noting that the Boss seems to send a message about the current gang of thieves in Washington – Bruce has never quite figured out the Who's sharpest insight: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" – but it's not the message, it's the brilliant way Springsteen weaves the words, that make it memorable.

That, and the contrast between the angst-ridden words and the joyous rock 'n' roll music, are what makes this package shine like the man and his band haven't shone since Born in the U.S.A. "You'll Be Coming Down" is about how what goes around comes around. "Livin' in the Future" details how a beautiful love affair will come crashing down someday, but not to worry, "None of this has happened yet." And you might not catch the ominous tone of the words while your happy feet are dancing to the vintage Jersey rock.

The best Springsteen lyrics say something you have felt in your gut but say it in a memorable way that brings the feeling back – "There were ghosts in the eyes of all the men you sent away," for example. Try this one for size: "Pour me a drink, Theresa, In one of those glasses you dust off, And I'll watch the bones in your back Like the Stations of the Cross." The words invoke the peace and awe of watching a special lover do something perfectly ordinary – wow, this fabulous woman chose me! So you proclaim to her, "What others may want for free, I'll work for your love."

But nothing lasts forever, the songs say, and that is both the joy and sadness of Springsteen's message. The joy fades, but so does the sadness, and we press on. In my personal early favorite, "Long Walk Home," Springsteen tries to make sense of the changes in his life and his hometown, and recalls his father telling him how lucky they were to be in this town: "It just wraps its arms around you; nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone. You know, that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone – Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't." Well, even the things that are set in stone don't seem to last forever, but we press on. It will indeed be a long walk home, but we'll dance there.

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Anonymous John Newman said...

It's obvious you are from New Jersey.;-)

1:06 PM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

I've spent so much time listening to the new John Fogerty CD this past week that I haven't even ripped the cellophane off my new Springsteen disc yet. Thanks for the nudge, pal!

4:28 PM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

OK, I've run through the Boss's new CD just once so far. Fantastic! Thanks for the review.

12:50 AM  
Blogger B.W. Richardson said...

You're welcome! And thanks for the tip on Fogerty! I brought home the record this afternoon, and it's running through my iTunes player even now.

Yeah, it's an extra step to record it off the vinyl. So?

5:20 PM  

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