January 25, 2009

Springsteen's Contentment

I'm all for a happy Bruce, and yet it is interesting to see what effect that has had on his art. Word on the back street is that his latest album is lyrically-challenged. Most, though not all of course, great artists seem troubled to some extent: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Van Gogh, even Shakespeare. Not to compare the Bard of New Jersey with the Bard of Avon but you get my drift.

I feel a bit of a prophet since a couple years ago I imagined Bruce Springsteen writing a song about a grocery store and blaming Bush for fewer choices:
Sixty Minutes correspondent Soft T. Baller asked: "Theoretically, what if the gap between the ideal and performance narrowed such that the darkness, the shadowlands of humanity as it were, was primarily the fact that only ten varieties of Kelloggs cereal were available in some foreign countries due to Bush Administration policies?"

Bruce answered, "Then I'd write a song about that! It'd go something like this [strums guitar while making a low, moaning sound]:
Marshall Bush took the stand
declared the oath but broke the band
when denied he Raisin Bran
to the stores of Ireland...

REF: Yeah there's a darkness in the supermarket...
There's a darkness in the supermarket...
Well it turns out his latest album does wax semi-lyrical about a grocery store, although in a reverse image ala Obamaland according to this WAPO review:
"Queen of the Supermarket" [is] a marvelous, majestic song, save for the lyrics, in which Springsteen goes shopping at a store "where aisles and aisles of dreams await you" -- specifically, where "a dream awaits in aisle number two" -- and winds up snatching a hidden-beauty metaphor from the clearance bin. (Leave it to the Boss to try to romanticize the mega-mart shopping experience.)
Depth and contentment often seem to be inversely-related which is why during good economic times there is a lot of entertainment news and fluff (i.e. see Clinton era). Springsteen's apparent contentment, personal and political, apparently hasn't done him any favors lyrically:
It's a recurring problem. "Surprise Surprise"...sounds like the best Traveling Wilburys song you've never heard, only with strings and, unfortunately, the sort of lyrics that Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, et al., might have laughed out of the room: "And when the sun comes out tomorrow, it'll be the start of a brand new day/And all that you have wished for I know will come your way."

On the driving rocker "My Lucky Day," over ringing guitars and piano fills, Springsteen plays with the old love-is-a-gamble motif, but can only come up with this couplet: "Well, I lost all the other bets I made/Honey, you're my lucky day."...

Throughout the album, Springsteen sounds relatively content -- a far cry from his state of mind 16 months ago, when the bitter and oft-bleak E Street album "Magic" was released. Then, Springsteen was downright disturbed by the realities of this American life under the watch of George W. Bush. Now, he sounds optimistic and occasionally giddy. But it's hardly a celebration of Obama-era political change: "Working on a Dream" is an apolitical album that goes for subtlety over Big Statements as Springsteen, at 59, considers personal relationships and the passage of time.
Well, just maybe it's not a coincidence that political change has changed his tune, I mean lyrics. But it is interesting to wonder if there's connection between happiness and artistry.

1 comment:

dylan said...

This topic fascinates. Not Bruce, specifically, but the connection between artistic "depth" and a certain un-ease or maladjustment to one's world.

Wallace Stevens was (on the surface, at least) the well-adjusted president (vice-president?) of an insurance company, and still produced some of the most brilliant, intricate verse of the 20th century. Hart Crane was a train wreck, and produced some works of furious virtuosity. Perhaps only sporadically brilliant. Sylvia Plath was suicidal most of the time, and I happen to think that her specifically suicidal poetry is not as fine as the earlier, more disciplined achievement of The Colossus. Dylan Thomas was Dylan Thomas, and wrote only when sober or mildly lubricated by one pint. And wrote immortally! Marianne Moore was, in one of her own phrases (describing someone else but applicable to herself), "fascinatingly sane," and still produced highly regarded, if not always passionately admired, poetry (and many fine essays). Allen Ginsberg was an enfant (and a po├Ęte) terrible.

But the connection between unhappiness, maladjustment, even illness -- and artistic achievement -- remains potent in our mythology, with, I think, good reason. There's a certain kind of imagination that can only work when untamed by mania, or fury, or deep dissatisfaction. I may have to blog on this!