Friday, April 20, 2012

Jack of All Trades

“When the blue sky breaks, it feels like world’s gonna change.”

There are many, many things that have made me (both of us here at Reason to Believe, really) a devotee of Bruce Springsteen’s music for the last 30 years or so. For starters, and for obvious, he writes and performs great music. His ear for what he does well and what sounds right when he lays it down is mind-bogglingly good. In nearly 40 years of recording he has never had a misstep. Even his “weakest” efforts (Human Touch, Working on a Dream) have first-rate material, and the albums as a whole easily rate at at least the 3-star level (going by Rolling Stone’s well-established 5-star system).

Another obvious reason is his unsurpassed ability as a performer. There were a few of those who came before him who maybe did an even better job live (James Brown comes foremost to mind), but really none since (Prince very well may be his equal, but I can’t say he outdoes Bruce onstage). I saw him most recently in Boston in late March and he played a phenomenal 25-song set that lasted 2 hours and 50 minutes. And the shows have only gotten longer since. The man is 62 years old, and the band is still airtight, his energy is always full-tilt and his voice never ever weakens. He’s been doing this for 40+ years now and he may be an even better performer now than he was 15-25-35 years ago. And again, the man is 62!

But then there’s the voice. And I don’t mean his singing voice (which is still rock solid and loaded with depth and pathos, BTW). But I am talking about the voice he gives his characters, the way he chooses to portray them. It has been steady, by and large, since he first entered the studio to record Greetings From Asbury Park. Not every character is the same—not even close—but most seem to have some commonality in who they are and what they want.

The people he sings about and for are workers and dreamers, realists and believers. They are not perfect, and not always particularly virtuous. Whether they are narrators bathed in romance (Spanish Johnny in “Incident on 57th Street,” the narrator in “Born to Run” and throughout that whole album, the youthful imp in “Growin’ Up”), in their darkest of hours (most of Nebraska, the narrator in “Racing in the Street,” the forlorn lost soul in “Long Walk Home”) or somewhere in between, the voices of most of his characters all seem to come from the same place. The ones who struggle still want to do good. The ones who do wrong seem to know right from wrong. The ones who are pushed, pulled, beaten, discarded, let down, dragged or torn apart from something important to them are fully aware of this, but still know who they are and long for a place that believes in them.

Like the narrator of “Badlands,” his first song of hard realism that came after a damaging three-year lawsuit with his old manager that kept him out of the studio for way too long. The singer is angry and his youthful enthusiasm is gone (“I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand…I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes…”) but he is still holding out hope, even if he’s not counting on it (“I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me above these Badlands.”)

As much as anything, that is why I admire Bruce Springsteen as much as I do. The voice with which he sings is so staggeringly consistent.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. “Jack of All Trades.” The best song off his excellent new Wrecking Ball album and one of the five best songs he has recorded in the last 20 years.

“Jack of All Trades” is the fourth song on an album that is rife with anger and frustration about the death of the working class at the hands of estimable ruling class for the past decade. Characters on this album are unemployed or underemployed, they feel cheated by the “robber barons” (he actually does use that term) and the fat-cats, and they’re pissed off. Some want to start committing crimes the way Wall Street has criminalized itself for the past 10 years. Some just shout from the rooftops “THIS IS WRONG” and wonder what’s happened to the country they believed in. Some see the potential for change and hope that their voices are heard (interestingly, as the album moves along through its 11 tracks, the “hopeful” tone slowly overtakes much of the anger, something I don’t believe is a coincidence.).

But throughout the album, people don’t just feel cheated and blindsided—as the 99% have so painstakingly tried to say for the past year and more, they have been cheated and blindsided.

The narrator on “Jack of All Trades” gets this, and while his tone is not necessarily anger, he’s not happy either. A tradesman looking for work, any work, to pay the bills and support his family, he stays tried and true to the belief, “We’ll be all right.” He sings it over and over again—at the end of nearly every verse, he first states his case (“I’m a Jack of all trades”) and then offers hope to his loved ones (“We'll be all right.”) Whether he is trying to reassure them or himself is left for the listener to guess. But he’s a worker and he’s not afraid of a hard day’s work. He just wants someone to let him work, and the results will speak for themselves.

The song is hushed and gorgeous, following a single piano melody that loosely resembles “Color My World” throughout, with an orchestral backing that slowly builds as the nearly six minute song progresses. Bruce’s voice is hard, deliberate. He sings as a man who’s tired, but needs to work.

I’ll mow your lawn
Clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades
Honey, we’ll be alright

I’ll hammer the nails
And I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart and patch her up
Until she’s running right
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

After backstory and simple statement of need in these first two verses, Bruce goes deeper and more universal on the first bridge that follows, with a sentiment so achingly lovely that it seems to hang on long after it is done, thanks in part to Curtis Ramm’s ethereal trumpet solo that follows and takes the song up into the clouds.

A hurricane blows
Brings a hard rain
When the blue sky breaks
Feels like the world’s gonna change
We’ll start caring for each other like Jesus said that we might
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

That is stunningly brilliant writing. And can’t we all see it? Don’t we all see the hope in a blue sky after a storm? Can’t that bring a feeling of optimism, however fleeting, that if nature can resolve itself and bring the sunshine, can’t we too start to help each other? Bruce leans rightfully on Gospel teachings here to bring the point home—yes, this is exactly what Jesus taught, so why can’t we do it? And why can’t we believe it?

He tells us why in the next verse.

The banker man grows fatter
The working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again
They’ll bet your life
I’m a Jack of all trades
Darling we’ll be alright

It’s all happened before, it’ll happen again. We’ve heard sentiments like this before from Bruce Springsteen—the impediment to getting the downtrodden what they need. We heard it in “Born in the U.S.A.” in the voice of the forgotten Vietnam veteran (“…10 years burning down the road, nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”), from the frustrated workers in “My Hometown” and “Youngstown,” and from the virtual Last Man Standing (“Radio Nowhere,” “Last To Die,” “My City of Ruin.”) And we keep hearing it, because this is the way the world treats the ones who don’t make the rules.

We don’t get resolution in “Jack of All Trades”—and I’m not sure we could, or should— but we do get a tiny sliver of optimism mixed into the cold, brutal reality in the final two verses.

Now sometimes tomorrow
comes soaked in treasure and blood
Here we stood the drought
Now we’ll stand the flood
There’s a new world coming
I can see the light
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

So you use what you’ve got
And you learn to make do
You take the old,
you make it new
If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight
I’m a Jack of all trades
We’ll be alright

And then, after nearly 5 minutes of simple piano, weary vocals and subtle orchestration, we are stunned upright by one of the most perfect, chilling guitar solos ever recorded. Guest star Tom Morello takes it and rather than angry shredding, he gives us melodic, understated perfection, with crystallized notes that shoot like a flare from the small, cruel world the narrator sits in and attempt to awaken and inform every creature on earth who may possibly see or hear. It is the final battle cry after the exhausted effort, the last ounce of energy available, and it lands “Jack of All Trades” somewhere deep inside your chest, where it is sure to stay awhile.

No, it’s not exactly hope the song leaves you with as Morello’s solo draws it to a close, and it’s not angst and it’s certainly not emptiness. What it is is what we all long to have at the end of one more long, hard day. Pride, and a stubborn belief in ourselves that we’ll see it through to another one.

We’ll be all right. Hopefully, we all will.

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