Back in the mid-‘80s, Bruce Springsteen’s theme song might as well have been “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” as his not-very-gung-ho protest song “Born in the USA” got misappropriated for all sorts of unironically patriotic purposes, not least of all by Ronald Reagan.
With his new single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen seems to be throwing up a gauntlet: Misunderstand me. Go on, I dare you.
Advance word about the artist’s upcoming album, “Wrecking Ball” (due out March 6), has touted the set as “his angriest ever” as well as concerned with themes of “economic justice.” So it might be confusing, at least for the first stanza or so, to hear this teaser track bust out of the gate with a seemingly jubilant sound and unabashedly inspirational chorus.
But its déjà “USA” all over again, as Springsteen mines the entire lyric with evocations of American promises unfulfilled. There’s not a line in the song that isn’t riddled with doubt, except for the title one. Every verse is so unremittingly unsure in its patriotism that the only certainty is that Romney or Gingrich certainly won’t fall into Bruce’s Br’er Rabbit trap, as Reagan did.
“The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone,” he sings, barely able to squeeze the barbed line into the bar of music allotted. “Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy? ... Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?”
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It’s not just “America the Beautiful” that Bruce references here. When he sings “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome,” he’s clearly alluding to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was arguably the most misunderstood song of all time prior to “Born in the USA.”
Springsteen may be riffing on the Who when he sings “Where’s the spirit that’ll reign rein over me.” He’s almost certainly alluding to the New Testament when he asks, “Where’s the love that has not forsaken me.”
Which leads to the burning question: When he sings “There ain’t no help, the Calvary stayed home,” did he intend to say “cavalry” -- a verbal typo, if you will -- or did Springsteen really mean to trade in his political statements for a theological one right there?
Even if Republicans won’t be in any rush to embrace the sentiments of rock’s most beloved Democrat this time, expect a few to claim this single could still serve as a conservative anthem anyway. “Taking care of our own” is a core tenet of the philosophy formerly known as compassionate conservatism, right?
But as pointed as the song is, it’s not entirely clear whether Springsteen means the title refrain as a hopeful affirmation of brothers stepping in to provide a safety net where government won’t (or, to conservatives, shouldn’t), or whether he’s employing it ironically, as a sad taunt about disappearing safety nets.
Either way, there’s certainly more to chew on in the lyrics than in the music, which feels sing-songy-repetitive even in the short space of under four minutes. Although E Street Band members play on the new album (along with other musicians), the sound harks back more to Springsteen’s highly synthesizer-driven ‘90s days than any classic signature sound, with the electronic “handclaps” in particular sounding strangely dated.
Here’s hoping that, come March, the politically charged “Wrecking Ball” will find just the right balance between E Street and K Street.