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Springsteen Can’t Hide His Catholic Past

April 9, 2012


An authentic Catholic worldview is one that does not blink, but has both eyes wide open to the fullness of the real world, in all its horror, beauty and mystery. It is a worldview that insists on the following. Mary is both Virgin and Mother, that Jesus is both God and man—without being more of one than the other. Faith and reason are not opposed, but live in harmony. We human beings are both sinners and saved, all at the same time. And death is life. The Catholic worldview holds two contrary positions together because to take one away would be to deny the fullness of the truth. We Catholics have a name for the position that denies the truth of one reality for the sake of the other—we call it heresy.

Bruce Springsteen, a lapsed Catholic with an undeniable Catholic worldview, released a new record earlier this month titled “Wrecking Ball.” Last week he was the keynote speaker at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. At the tail end of his speech, his Catholic imagination took over as he addressed the audience of about two thousand up-and-coming musicians. Here’s what he said:

So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears and open your hearts. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have unclad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town—and you suck! It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideals alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive. And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have—and then remember it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.

Springsteen has a seasoned understanding of the Catholic both/and principle. He knows that the only way to really see the world as-it-is is to keep two contradictory truths alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. (Philosophically speaking, these truths are actually contrary, not contradictory—but let’s not get picky.) Without this both/and vision, a listener will easily fall into the trap of thinking Springsteen is frustrated, angry and depressed, or that he is commendably filled with faith and hope. The truth about Springsteen, and specifically on his latest album “Wrecking Ball,” is this—he’s both.

The record begins with “We Take Care of Our Own,” which by its title sounds like a song of affirmation or perhaps an assessment, but once the guitars and piano pull back and Springsteen opens his mouth, you realize this is an indictment. He sings of “good hearts turned to stone” and that “the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone” before coming to the poppy hook: “We take care our own/We take care of our Own/Wherever this flag is flown/We take care of our own.” Springsteen is using his prophetic voice to remind us of what has been forgotten or ignored—that we belong to each other and that we take care of each other—we are our brother’s keeper. And it’s repetitive, because he doesn’t want us to forget. As the music encourages, the lyrics scold, as he tells us 12 times “We take care of our own” in a little less than four minutes.

Springsteen hired Ron Aniello to produce “Wrecking Ball,” and on “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” you realize at once that Aniello has helped Springsteen’s sound evolve yet again. (Aniello produced Patty ‘Mrs. Springsteen’ Scialfa’s last record in 2007, but even more interesting is that Aniello has produced records for a variety of Christian artists including Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer and Jeremy Camp.) There is the boot-stomping, John-Henry-feel of “The Seeger Sessions,” but it’s accompanied with what Springsteen calls Aniello’s “library of sound,” which includes drum loops, horns, strings and vocal arrangements that surprise and satisfy.

The record slows down for a piano and horn-driven ballad “Jack of All Trades” as Springsteen’s self-explanatory character humbly tells us that he’s willing to work any job that will pay the bills in these hard times: “I’ll mow your lawn/Clean the leaves out’ your drain/I’ll mend your roof, to keep out the rain/I take the work that God provides/I’m the jack of all trades/Honey we’ll be alright.” Like the two songs before it, “Jack of All Trades” addresses the widening gap between Wall Street and Main Street and Springsteen sings for the folks who suffer because of it. In the last verse, Springsteen’s character has had enough and unveils his anger, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight/I’m the jack of all trades/Honey we’ll be alright,” as Tom Morello’s guitar solo glides over a warm cornet to bring the song resolution.

Continuing with the theme of white-collar crime, “Death to My Hometown” is the best track on the record, and I would argue that it’s one of the best songs Springsteen has ever written, both lyrically and musically. It’s an Irish Rebel Song, full of verve, passion, zeal and righteous anger. The penny whistle (of all instruments) sets the tone over drums and percussion that sound the pace of marchers, as a beautiful arrangement of back-up vocals confidently pushes forward—yet they retreat for a moment, so that in gritty voice Springsteen can sing, “Well, no canon ball did fly/No rifles cut us down/No bombs fell from the sky/No blood soaked the ground/No powder flash blinded the eye/No deathly thunder sounded/But just as sure as the hand of God/They brought death to my hometown.” This song is a call to arms, and Springsteen’s best weapon has always been his music, which he acknowledges as he orders, “Now get yourself a song to sing/And sing it ‘til you’re done/Sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber barons straight to hell.” Like the psalmist, Springsteen holds back no emotion as he cries out for justice upon seeing his hometown crumble before his eyes.

“This Depression” and “You’ve Got It” are two quasi-ballads that sandwich the record’s fiery title track. “You’ve Got It” is the better of the two, and lyrically it sounds like something off “Tunnel of Love,” but Aniello’s choice of soft, simple yet layered accompaniment gives it a fresh and crisp feel. (Even the hand claps work on this record.)

If the first half of “Wrecking Ball” is darkness, then the second half is light—there’s that both/and principle at work. On “Rocky Ground,” Springsteen moves into some of the most religious imagery on the record as he cries out, “Rise up shepherd rise/Your flock has roamed far from the hill/The stars have faded, the sky is still/The angels are shouting ‘Glory Hallelujah.’ ” He sees clearly that things aren’t what they were or what they should be, and he acknowledges that there is suffering, there is hurt, and the flock has been scattered. But he comes on strong with a vision of hope that all things can be made new. After gospel singer Michelle Moore raps (a first for a Springsteen album) about hard times and despair, Springsteen brings the song home with hopeful close: “There’s a new day coming, a new day’s Coming,” and although we’re not sure when, Springsteen finds a reason to believe.

For much of Springsteen’s career the car has been his vehicle of salvation. Think of “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” “Racing in the Streets,” etc. But on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Springsteen introduces us to the train, which carries a lot more people. The train is Springsteen’s metaphor for the church as a pilgrim people, a people on the move. Even the music mimics a train as it starts off slow, with a single voice—“This train”—then another voice, then strings and as the song builds the train picks up speed, and before you know it the B-3 Organ pipes in along with guitars and drums and soon the train is rolling down the track.

Springsteen’s train metaphor is not original, but what is unique is the type of passengers that he calls aboard. Springsteen’s train carries everybody—saints, sinners, losers, winners, fools, gamblers, broken-hearted, thieves and sweet souls departed—and it is his hope the ride can transform its passengers as they make their way to the promised land, as this is a train where “faith will be rewarded.” Fittingly at the 3:45 mark, the late Clarence Clemons blows a sax solo that sounds like salvation. And eventually, after a good ride on the extended chorus, the song slows down to the pace from which it began, but not because it’s the end of the line. It seems that there is another stop—to pick up some more people.

I can’t wait to hear “Land of Hope and Dreams” along with the rest of this record live when Springsteen pulls into Cleveland on April 17th. And it makes me think how very rare it is to say that regarding a rock musician who has been around for 40 years, I’m more excited about hearing his “new stuff” than his “old stuff.”

“Wrecking Ball” is an instant classic. The songwriting is brilliant, the production is daring and innovative, and the album simply doesn’t miss. Perhaps what makes the record so good is that Springsteen has simply gotten better at what he’s always been good at—holding two contrary truths together at the same time—an undeniable product of his Catholic imagination. Just as the Psalter comprises ancient hymns both of terrible sorrow and great joy, so too is “Wrecking Ball” a collection of songs about both despair, anger and damnation—and faith, hope and love. Of course, at the end of the day, the psalms are the psalms, and “Wrecking Ball” is only rock ‘n’ roll… but I like it.

Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.  He has been listening to Bruce Springsteen since he was 4 years old.