Bruce Springsteen interview: Reborn in the USA
Few musicians anywhere consummate symbolic occasions and mass events better than Springsteen. He's used to working on a stadium scale, and for decades his concerts have been nonstop singalongs that perfectly embody the yearning for community in his lyrics. In an era when pop hits can be as ephemeral as a deleted MP3 file, Springsteen has spent much of his career labouring to write durable songs about American dreams, from Born to Run to Promised Land.
While his latest seven-album contract with Columbia Records is worth a reported $110 million, he still comes across as a working-class guy from New Jersey, invoking a compassionate populism as he sings about jobs, families and everyday life and savours the company of his longtime buddies in the E Street Band. He has the gravitas to lead off Barack Obama's inaugural concert and the gusto to rock the Super Bowl. In between he released a new studio album, Working on a Dream.
Springsteen still reaches for big, symbolic statements and gets called on to make them. "Those moments are opportunities for a very heightened kind of communication," he says.
At We Are One, the all-star opening ceremony and concert for President Obama's inauguration, before hundreds of thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial and millions on television and online, Springsteen and a choir sang The Rising, a song about sacrifice and redemption on 11 September. At a New York City fundraiser in October that Springsteen attended, Obama said: "The reason I'm running for president is because I can't be Bruce Springsteen." Springsteen played The Rising at campaign events in battleground states, including a rally in Cleveland two days before the election.
"Once you start doing that kind of writing, it feeds off itself," Springsteen says. "You write The Rising for this, it gets picked up and used for that, so you end up here. If someone had told me in 2001, 'You're going to sing this song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president,' I'd have said, 'Huh?' " He laughs. "But eight years go by, and that's where you find yourself. You're in there, you're swimming in the current of history, and your music is doing the same thing."
"A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean? Promised Land, Badlands, I've seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I'd seen that country on a grass-roots level through the 1980s, since I was a teenager. And I met people who were working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away.
"And so on election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life," he says.
"I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, 'Oh my God, it exists.' Not just dreaming it. It exists, it's there, and if this much of it is there, the rest of it's there. Let's go get that. Let's go get it. Just that is enough to keep you going for the rest of your life. All the songs you wrote are a little truer today than they were a month or two ago."
Springsteen's new album, Working on a Dream, was released less than 14 months after Magic in 2007. Springsteen hasn't made studio albums so quickly since he released both of his first two albums in 1973.
Even more than Magic, the new album represents a sea change in Springsteen's music. After the elaborate, tortured production of Born to Run, back in 1975, Springsteen went through a "reactive" phase that lasted more than two decades, building his songs on the basics of country, blues and folk music, with utilitarian melodies and straightforward, near-live production.
He and his producer, Brendan O'Brien, who first produced Springsteen with The Rising in 2002, brought some pop embellishments to Magic. And Working on a Dream follows through.
Encouraged by O'Brien, Springsteen wrote five new songs in the week before he did the final mixes of Magic. "I realised, I do love those big sweeping melodies and the romanticism, and I haven't allowed myself much of it in the past. When you have a little vein you haven't touched, it's full."
Working on a Dream often plays like a 1960s anthology: Creedence Clearwater Revival in the title song, the Beach Boys in This Life, the Byrds in Life Itself, Ben E King in Queen of the Supermarket, psychedelic blues-rock in Good Eye and spaghetti-western soundtracks in the eight-minute Outlaw Pete. As lush as the music gets, few of the lyrics are fluff; Springsteen is pondering love and death. The celebratory affection of My Lucky Day gives way to songs that recognise the inexorable passage of time.
"POP ALWAYS BRINGS WITH IT THE intimations of forever and immortality," he says. "There was something so in tune with the universe in their math, and in the way that math was imbued with someone's hopes, dreams, love, despair, immortal feelings, feelings of death coming around the corner, and then you try to put it all in three minutes. It was very exciting for me, being in this place of my life, to go back to those forms which are filled with that sense of forever and put finiteness in it."
At 59, Springsteen is indefatigable. His next American tour starts in April, followed by a summer of European dates. He still regularly plays vigorous three-hour sets. "Onstage I can't noticeably say I feel any different than I did in 1985," he says.
The album ends with The Wrestler, the sombre title track for the Mickey Rourke movie. It won a Golden Globe Award for best song but, surprisingly, was not nominated for an Academy Award.
The album also includes The Last Carnival, an elegy to the founding E Street Band keyboardist, Danny Federici, that Springsteen wrote for his funeral; Jason Federici plays his father's accordion. "We'll be riding the train without you tonight / The train that keeps on moving," Springsteen sings. Yet most of the album strives for the elation of pop. "I wanted hooks, hooks, hooks – things for people to sing, and sound that was going to lift you up," he says. "I wanted to capture the intensity and the immediacy of passionate love, and then its resonance in and beyond your life. And I wanted it to sound, like, classic: verse, huge chorus, sky-opening-up strings."
Steve Van Zandt, an E Street Band guitarist, says he was thrilled Springsteen's newer songs evoke 1960s pop. "In the past he just ignored that part of his talent, and he's the most talented pop songwriter," he says.
After more than three decades of shaping American archetypes, Springsteen sees his career as its own community in the making, shared and constructed with his listeners.
"It's not just my creation at this point, and it hasn't been really for a long time," he says. "I wanted it to be our creation. Once you set that in motion, it's a large community of people gathered around a core set of values.
"Within that there's a wide range of beliefs, but still you do gather in one tent at a particular moment to have some common experience, and that's why I go there too."
At rehearsal he struts across the stage: testing banter, brandishing his guitar, belting out lyrics and jiving with Van Zandt. As the band finish a run-through, someone holding a timer calls out the length of the set. "We've got one-sixteenth of a second left," Springsteen smiles. "And we plan to use it."
Working on a Dream is out now on Columbia.