Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Outlaw Pete": Springsteen Makes a Western

Among the many virtues in Bruce Springsteen’s music is a rich sense of history. And like many of those virtues, that sense of history has emerged organically over the course of his career. Springsteen’s first albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, were marked by a powerful sense of immediacy; to a great extent, they’re records of the present tense. Beginning with the release of Born to Run, a consciousness of history – principally in the form of a growing awareness of past failure, and a desperate desire to avoid similar mistakes – begins to suffuse the consciousness of his characters. This consciousness is deeply personal, typically expressed, for example, in generational tensions between fathers and sons. That’s what I mean by “organic.”

By about 1980, Springsteen’s sense of history begins to get broader. It emerges in a series of forms, ranging from his decision to perform songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (reading 1980 Joe Klein’s biography of Guthrie as the suggestion of his manager, Jon Landau, seems to have been a watershed experience) to recording original songs like “Wreck on the Highway,” avowedly patterned on the style of country & western singer Roy Acuff. His 1982 album Nebraska is saturated with a sense of the 1930s (his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad even more so), and even deeply personal songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” connect the private struggles of their protagonist to much larger historical ones. This trajectory is a striking, and impressive testament to an artist’s power to grow and integrate everyday life into a broader human drama.

One of the less remarked upon aspects of Springsteen’s body of work is his fascination with the West. This is, of course, counterintuitive – Springsteen is nothing if not the voice of New Jersey, an embodiment of urban, ethnic, working-class values and culture typically associated with the Northeast Corridor. But the western signposts are there, as early as “Rosalita,” which climaxes with a vision of triumphant lovers savoring their victory over paternal repression in a café near San Diego. That’s a fleeting reference. But beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town – think of the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” of “The Promised Land” – the West becomes a vivid and indispensable setting for a number of songs. Springsteen being Springsteen, he’s not always content simply to invoke or use such settings in conventional ways. So, for example, the gorgeous yearning that marks his 1995 song “Across the Border,” redolent with music, instrumentation, and language of the Southwest, is purposely ambiguous which side of the border its protagonists long to go. Springsteen’s mythic tendencies are often marked by creative friction with the concrete details and ironic realities of everyday life.

“Outlaw Pete,” the leadoff track on Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, represents the next turn of the wheel in a way that’s somehow predictable, surprising, and inevitable all at once. Superficially, the song, like the album as a whole, is something of a throwback, a return to the dense, lush, melodic pop songs that were once Springsteen’s stock-in-trade. At eight minutes long, it’s also the first time in decades that’s he’s recorded a mini-epic on the scale of “Incident on 57th St.” or “Jungleland.” For thirty years now, the overall trend in Springsteen’s work has been toward more sparse, even minimalist songs that approach spoken-language records, though the approach here was first broached on Magic in 2007. It’s almost jarring to hear his eager embrace of melodic hooks and multi-track harmonies.

It’s also almost jarring in that “Outlaw Pete” so willfully introduces us to a protagonist who seems like a cartoon figure from an imitation John Ford movie, who “at six months old” had “done three months in jail” and “robbed a bank in his diapers and little baby feet.” Pete’s signature question, “Can you hear me?” seems like a childish insistence for attention. Some might be amused by such a description; others might dismayed, even irritated by its triviality. One could be forgiven for perceiving that Springsteen is slipping into superficiality in his advancing age, perhaps trying to recapture the sense of popular appeal that once seems so effortlessly his.

But appearances are deceiving. More specifically, our perception of Outlaw Pete is deceiving. After hearing the seemingly requisite description of a horse-stealing, heart-breaking scoundrel – rendered in an amused voice that suggests the narrator views him as a figure closer to a rakishly charming Jesse James than a hard, frightening, Liberty Valance – the story turns on a dime (the music, which shifts to a declining phrase of repeating notes, indicates this) as Pete gets a vision of his own death that prompts him to marry a Navajo and settle down with a newborn daughter on a reservation. Yet in some sense the story is only getting started. A vindictive lawman – another staple of western mythology – is determined to bring Pete down and precipitates a confrontation. “Pete you think you have changed but you have not,” Dan tells him, in so doing posing the existential question at the heart of the song, which is to what degree we have agency over our characters and thus our fate. In the showdown that follows Pete is nominally the victor, yet Dan literally gets the last word in observing before his death that “we cannot undo these things that we’ve done.” The question “Can you hear me?” is turned on its head, as Dan speaks to Pete instead of Pete speaking to the world.

Pete, now a fugitive from the law, makes an ambiguous disappearance from the story. Is it to be understood that his encounter with Dan demonstrates the fixed nature of his personality and the impossibility of any lasting mortal redemption? Or is it an act of abnegation that protects his wife and daughter from the wickedness that surrounds him? The final verses of the song depict Dan’s daughter braiding Pete’s buckskin chaps in her hair – original sin and grace at once – with the question “Can you hear me?” now completely reversed, as we listeners seek the vanished Pete. Like Alan Ladd in Shane or John Wayne in any number of westerns, Pete catalyzes action that leads to resolution, but pushes him beyond the frame.

Like a great many works of art, “Outlaw Pete” asks many more questions than it answers. But there are at least two things it does clarify. The first is the ongoing vitality of western mythology (now nicely updated with a multicultural accent) as a vehicle for exploring the complexities of American life. The second is the ongoing vitality of Springsteen himself, 36 years into an enormously broad and deep body of work, to reinvent himself through reviewing and revising our cultural traditions. He hears us, and we see ourselves.