NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER
Still Worlds Apart: Springsteen countdown hits songs 170-161
By Jim Beviglia
April 17th, 2010 at 7:07 AM
We’re quickly rising up the countdown! Songs 170-161 span Springsteen’s entire career with entries from his first record, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and his latest, Working on a Dream.

Song 170: “Countin’ On A Miracle”
Album: The Rising
Although it’s more covert about it then some of its counterparts on The Rising, “Countin’ On A Miracle” is without a doubt 9/11-inspired. Bruce uses the trappings of fairy tales to depict what the narrator’s life once was. The reality is much harsher: “Your kiss was taken from me,” he sings in the bridge. In the final verse he speaks of a need to transcend his earthly limitations: “If I’m gonna live/I’ll lift my life/Darlin’ to you.”

And so the impossibility of a miracle is the only reality that makes any sense to him. Bruce had already hit on the theme that made Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking such a trenchant treatise on sudden loss. I just wish he had coupled the lyrics with something a little more original than the grinding rock arrangement he chooses here. The darker aspects of the words deserved a more delicate treatment.

What makes it even more frustrating is that there are hints of what might have been in some of Brendan O’Brien’s production. The acoustic intro is lovely, and I like the string breakdown even more. Those moments are more apt to the song’s message.

As such, the best they can do is to provide some much-needed balance. Springsteen clearly was trying to force some uplift into the proceedings here, but it comes off as, well, forced. The inherent sadness is much more appealing in this case.

Song 169: “Balboa Park”
Album: The Ghost of Tom Joad
If nothing else, The Ghost of Tom Joad was a fearless depiction of the situation on the southern border of the U.S at a time when it wasn’t exactly a hot-button issue. Springsteen’s insistence on telling these tales through the eyes of the immigrants granted those folks a resilient dignity and forced listeners to identify with the problem more than any amount of statistics concerning the situation ever could. While he wasn’t alone in his crusading (Bruce himself had his eyes opened by some literature on the subject), he was by far the most famous and had the biggest cultural clout.

As such, it’s OK that much of the album eschews the trappings of pop music, since Bruce understood that anything that would distract attention from the bare-bones of his stories would have been detrimental. Songs like “Balboa Park” will never be blasted at full volume through stereo speakers, but their force is not mitigated in any way.

There is a feeling of sameness running through the album though, and this song falls victim to it somewhat. The main frame of the story, i.e. an immigrant who, devoid of other options, takes to illegal means in the U.S. to provide for his family across the border, is told again and again throughout the album.

Although the particulars may be different, there’s not enough in “Balboa Park” to distinguish it as more than a solid effort. Only the final image lingers, a harrowing snap shot of the main character being run down in the street by the American Dream.

Song 168: “Empty Sky”
Album: The Rising
The acoustic groove that this song works up really conjures the dread and anguish of the lyrics. Those guitars are strummed with tangible force, Max Weinberg’s drums snap like wayward firecrackers, and Roy Bittan’s piano thunders down in the second verse. When Bruce’s harmonica wails in the break, it’s a howl full of helpless sorrow.

The lyrics are more workmanlike (save for a brief trip to Jordan in the final verse) and evoke emptiness with images both inescapably terrible (blood falling from the sky) and subtly devastating (a man pondering the impression of his wife’s body on his empty bed).

What’s even more notable is Springsteen’s owning up to the desire for revenge so closely associated with the 9/11 tragedy that inspired The Rising. By mingling it with the need for love (“I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye”), he accurately described the infinitely complicated mix of emotions that roiled inside so many of us at the time.

“Empty Sky” ends up feeling a tad too focused and earnest; you sort of have to avert your eyes from all of that coiled intensity in the song.There is no release from it, but, then again, for those who lost loved ones on that day, release is likely still impossible.

Song 167: “The Angel”
Album: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Most people associate “The Professor” Roy Bittan’s piano with Springsteen, but David Sancious did the honors for Bruce in the pre-Born To Run days. His elegantly sad piano is the highlight of “The Angel” from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Those somber chords are a counterintuitive accompaniment for Bruce’s tale of a motorcycle rider who sweeps an unsuspecting beauty “in a trainer bra with eyes like rain” off her feet and rides off into eternity. You can see the seeds for the Springsteen highway obsession that would continue throughout his career; certainly the “interstate’s choked with nomadic hordes” couldn’t be very far removed from the “highway’s jammed with broken heroes.”

The sorrowful piano hints at a darker side to the born-to-ride ethos by which The Angel lives. The imagery might be just a bit too florid here, which may be caused in part by the fact that the debut album was the only one in which Bruce primarily wrote the lyrics before the music. That would also help to explain the lack of a chorus, which leaves the title character wandering around a bit aimlessly by song’s end.

Springsteen’s reluctance to play this song live lends it an unmistakable air of mystery that’s exacerbated by the lack of closure in the lyrics. Somewhere The Angel still rides unrepentantly across the highways in the night, “poison oozing from his engine.” Woe to the Sunday drivers in his path.

Song 166: “Two Faces”
Album: Tunnel of Love

The dichotomy between the parts of us that want love and the parts that shun it is explored to its very core throughout Tunnel Of Love. Nowhere is this dichotomy spelled out any more clearly than on “Two Faces.”

Bruce dilutes the power of this message by sticking to rather obvious hello/goodbye opposites to get his point across. What profundity the song contains comes from the unchecked admission of his own fallacies in this situation. The willingness to share the blame rather than cast it all on the other person is what makes the album such an incisive portrait of a relationship in crisis.

Musically, there isn’t a whole lot in the offing here, with the exception of Bruce busting out a song-ending organ solo that recalls Del Shannon or ? & The Mysterians. The man’s love of 60’s rock and roll is never far from the forefront of his music.

Combining that appreciation of rock’s history with a lyrical power rarely paralleled in the genre is at the essence of what sets Springsteen apart, and that combination makes even an obscure album cut like “Two Faces” a genuine gem.

Song 165: “Book of Dreams”
Album: Lucky Town

This song off Lucky Town has the same warm keyboards found on “My Hometown,” although this time it was Bruce himself doing the honors on the instrument. Recounting the wonder and mystery of his wedding night, the song is sweet and vaguely sad, which is odd considering the context.

Maybe that’s because Bruce had already been around the marriage block once before, and the first one didn’t turn out so well. Certainly this song has many warm images inspired by his marriage to Patti, but it’s the darker side that gives the song an unexpected heft.

That dark side doesn’t come into play until the final verse. Up until then we witness a bemused Bruce standing outside the reception in quasi-disbelief at his good fortune, followed by the consummation scene, a scene of coital bliss far different than the one we heard about in “Reno.”

It’s that fourth and final verse that gives pause. Backing up in time to describe the actual moment that this union becomes official in the eyes of God, the terms used by Bruce are quite ominous: “ritual,” “strangers,” “mystery,” “danger.” The last image is the couple dancing toward the “darkening trees.” It’s clear that Springsteen was indeed sublimely happy at the time he wrote “Book Of Dreams.” But it’s also clear that the “scars” he talks about in the song weren’t quite healed.

Song 164: “Pony Boy”
Album: Human Touch

If you’re a rock star, it is a rite of passage that you must write a lullaby for your child and stick it somewhere on an album. Since Bruce skipped many of the other rock-star rites of passage, like the drug arrests and ill-advised concept albums, no one could begrudge him the opportunity to celebrate his first-born with the last song on Human Touch.

Bruce really doesn’t deserve all the credit for the song, as it is a traditional that eventually morphed into a Western tune at the turn of the twentieth century. But he changed enough of the lyrics for it to be considered more than a mere cover.

It is admirable that Bruce doesn’t try to give advice to his son like so many of his peers had done in their own odes to their kids. He just keeps it simple, asking his son to join him on his ride through life. When wife Patti joins in at the end, it’s a truly sweet moment and the high point of this gentle charmer.

Song 163: “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”
Album: The Rising

One of the few light spots on The Rising, which was appropriately serious for the most part, “Waitin On A Sunny Day” finds the E Street Band as close as they were on that album to their classic sound. Think “Hungry Heart” with some violin thrown in there, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of this track.

Though this song doesn’t quite ascend to the luscious heights of that classic Top 10 smash, it’s still pretty tasty ear candy. Max Weinberg sets the pace with his muscular beat, Danny Federici adds color with well-timed chords, and Clarence Clemons is all over his solo at the end. I don’t know that Soozie Tyrell’s violin is quite the right fit here, but at least it recedes a bit after figuring prominently at the song’s outset.

You’ve also got some “sha-la-la” backing vocals and chiming bells to add to the mix. Had this been released in 1984 or so, it certainly would have found a place on the charts. On The Rising, it provides a needed respite in the midst of some truly harrowing stuff.

Song 162: “Cross My Heart”
Album: Human Touch

The romantic gray areas prevalent on Tunnel Of Love find their way onto this track off Human Touch. “Once you cross your heart/You ain’t ever supposed to lie,” sings Bruce toward the end of the song, uncoiling the line in a high register after staying muted to that point. It’s never that simple, the Boss seems to say, but it damn sure ought to be.

These sentiments are aided by one of the better productions on an album that’s hampered by some poor ones. Each instrument is given room to carve out its space and make an impact, as opposed to becoming just another indecipherable part of the mix. Once that’s established, it leaves room for Springsteen to let loose some feral solos.

The lyrical sentiments are ones that Bruce had already adequately expressed in the late 80s, so there’s a bit of a retread feeling to the track. Given that, the power of the music gets it across and makes it a keeper on an album unusual in the Springsteen canon for being somewhat devoid of them.

Song 161: “Worlds Apart”
Album: The Rising

Unlike Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel, peers of Springsteen who successfully melded world music with traditional Western rock to create vibrant new sounds, Bruce’s rock has always been distinctly American. There was no better time though to venture to new musical lands than when it came time to lay down this track off The Rising, hence Bruce’s employment of Pakistani Asif Ali Khan and his group of vocalists and experts in the music known as qawwali.

“Worlds Apart” begins with just the sounds of a tabla and the otherworldly vocals of Khan and his group, and it’s jarring to hear Springsteen’s familiar drawl invade upon this world. But the first verse proves to be a mesmerizing juxtaposition. Bruce’s melody is well-suited to the exotic background, creating a hypnotic and seductive effect.

I actually prefer this part to when the rock guitars come crashing in, breaking the spell. The song loses some of its uniqueness from that point forward. The instrumental fade-out is a bit better, with Bruce’s guitar squeals approximating the emotional exhortations of the vocalists.

It all comes in service of a song that’s about the difficulties of making connections between cultures. On a basic level, the song refers to two lovers from far different backgrounds, trying to outrun the tradition that separates them (“May the living let us in/Before the dead tears us apart.”)

On a larger level, Springsteen was peering beyond a black-and-white response to the kind of enmity that led to 9/11. The song’s daring, both in terms of its sentiment and its music, helps to outweigh its faults. It’s just too bad that the understanding found in “Worlds Apart” still at times feels worlds away.