Tuesday, November 29, 2011

18. Bruce Springsteen, "The River" (1980)


Bruce Springsteen works best for me in a doleful mood—it's the thing about him that took me awhile to figure out, that finally got me past his fans and my worst contrarian impulses and those early exercises in beatnik poetry and all the hoopla attached to him like skin ink. I arrived as a doubter and left as a believer, late as usual, which I doubt will impress either his skeptics or his most ardent partisans, but there it is. The sad take of "The River" on the state of marriage has always gone to work on me the moment I hear its mournful sounds fading up. It comes from a singer, at least—and a songwriter too, I'm pretty sure—who believes in the institution, and if it's ultimately more about class and the grinding conditions and above all the loss that class imposes than it is about love, it's about love too. It has to be. The loss amounts to more, even to something else entirely from love: youth, hope, wonder, the sense that life holds great things in store for anyone with the opportunity to go skinny-dipping on a warm summer night with one's partner. But it starts and ends with faith in love. I'm still not entirely sure about Springsteen's many first-person songs addressing some anonymous authority figure known only as "mister" (which is to say I'm still not entirely sure about Nebraska), but it works here. As do the concrete details, even when they veer dangerously close to cliché. And as does, more than anything, the critical center of this song, the impossible question we're left to ponder: "Now those memories come back to haunt me / They haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don't come true / Or is it something worse?" Answer that one and you get a prize.

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