Lucky Town

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1992

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Bruce Springsteen is first, a great lyricist, and second, everything else.

Each of Springsteen's 11 studio albums tells a story. Sometimes the story is a virtual mirror-image of his own life, as on Tunnel Of Love; more often he constructs characters to explore the dilemmas churning in his mind, an approach that reached its zenith on the desolate folk albums Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad. But each album is itself just one chapter in the larger story he's been telling with almost every song he's issued since 1972: his own.

Springsteen's albums, taken as a whole, trace the middle arc of a life from youth into manhood, and then adulthood, and then fatherhood, and lately, creeping middle age. The tones and styles and relative degrees of separation between author and narrator have fluctuated over time. But the life at the center of the story has always been Springsteen's, and in this, one of his most important -- and sorely overlooked -- albums, a man who's spent eighteen-years struggling to get a grip on the sense of purpose so desperately sought by the narrator of "Born To Run" finally grasps it.

The surprise, at least for those among his longtime fans who once worshipped him for his road-wise, hard-living, freedom-craving image, is that he found the keys to his happiness in his own hand, in his own home, with his own wife and children.

He begins with a statement that captures both where he's been and where he's just arrived, in "Better Days." He's grown tired of "sittin' around waitin' for my life to begin / While it was all just slippin' away," and, with a gospel-tinged organ and background chorus urging him on, resolves to live more in the moment and savor the good place he has come to in his life.

This change in attitude is just the thing, he sings in "Lucky Town," to help him "lose these blues I've found" since winning "some victory that was just failure in deceit," a seeming reference to the undesirable side of fame he experienced after my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Born In The USA made his name a household word. The more his success drove his existence away from his blue-collar roots, it seems, the more it drove his core values back to them.

He takes a few more shots at his own rarefied image in the rollicking story-song "Local Hero," in which he comes across a portrait of himself screened onto black velvet and the checkout girl informs him it's "a local hero, he used to live here for awhile." In the end, he comes to appreciate that bittersweet station in life, though, and to almost long for the good old days when his aspirations could only reach that high.

The gorgeous country ballad "If You Should Fall Behind" brings things back close to home with a look at how lovers must pace one another to stay on the same path, and leads nicely into the hard-rocking "Leap of Faith," a rousing tribute to the almost-religious powers of sexual healing ("And in your love, I'm born again").

Next "The Big Muddy" takes things down to the swamps for a brief, eerie wade into the kind of moral ambiguity that troubles any man with a conscience. But this evocative piece (a character study in more ways than one) is really just the set-up for the album's knockout punch.

"Living Proof" is one of the most heartfelt songs Springsteen has ever recorded (which is in itself a statement). He's taken stock of his entire life and still been left searching for something that's missing, and now, to a slowly building backbeat, over a stream of jangly guitar chords, he's struggling to find the core of certainty and meaning that's eluded him for so long. Then, like a gift from above, it appears:

"Well now on a summer night, in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother's arms, it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to a prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty, so fouled and confused
Searching for a little of God's mercy
I found living proof"

It's a song of redemption, of the spiritual rebirth of a new father whose struggles with his own father are nearly legendary, delivered with the ragged voice of an ancient wolf howling triumphantly at the full moon. Perhaps especially if you have a child of your own, it is a thing of breathtaking beauty to behold.

There is more: an achingly pretty wedding song ("Book of Dreams"); a thundering elegy to those who die too young ("Souls of the Departed"); and a surreal country-folk coda -- "My Beautiful Reward" -- that suggests even now, Springsteen's search for meaning still goes on. It's just taken on a different scope, searching for answers beyond the reaches of the essential contentment he's achieved within his own life. It points, inexorably, toward the larger issues addressed in the subsequent The Ghost Of Tom Joad album.

Lucky Town is a masterful, moving, essential piece of work. What it isn't, is Born To Run II, or Born In The USA II. But it isn't meant to be. Instead, it's just one more fascinating chapter in the autobiography of one of the great American storytellers of the 20th century.

Rating: A

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