Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bruce Springsteen, "Downbound Train" (1984)


More confessions of a one-time Bruce Springsteen snob: This is pretty much the song that turned me around on him forever, the reason I favor Born in the U.S.A. of all his albums (also the sequence of which this is part from "Cover Me" through to "I'm on Fire," and speaking of which also all those hits too, except the title song). I know it's the triumphal ascendance point of his career, an annoying point in the careers of many. It's harder to feel special when you're sharing the object of your adoration with whole stadiumsful  of people showing up late. And some signs here already perhaps of the problems that were ahead, the frustrating admixture of bloat and vacuousness in there with all the good stuff. But one of the things I like most about Bruce Springsteen is that he looks around and feels sad, genuinely sad. "Downbound Train," which feels like a lost alternate-universe fragment of a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath, might be the best example of that I know. He's talking about injustice in as lucid and straightforward a manner as could be. He's not looking away from anything. He's working in a carwash. It grounds the high points of his other songs, delivers their joys better knowing all the extremes are acknowledged and felt. This is how I think Bruce Springsteen does it. He is carrying a heavy load in this song—presumably why it's a train. I love the way the burden flattens the words in his mouth into rounded vowels and sliding growls. On the lines "Now I swing a sledge hammer on a railroad gang / Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain," he is practically just moaning and honking. It's good that people make lyrics available on the Internet, although thinking about it now every sense of those words is there in the vocal—the sense of working, and futility.