Sunday, December 11

A promised land

One of the reasons I love Bruce Springsteen's song The Promised Land so wholeheartedly is because from the first moment I listen to it - from that opening harmonica - I feel like I already know it intimately. Not in a superficial, easy-listening sense. The song speaks to a deeper kind of familiarity, but it does so in a way that's both immediate and lasting. I think Springsteen is one of only a few songwriters who can hold depth and immediacy so tightly together in a single song.

Many moons ago, my friend Isabelle watches a Youtube video I link to on Twitter. It's Springsteen performing an acoustic Thunder Road on a sunny-rainy evening in London's Hyde Park, 2012. Later, Isabelle tells me her initial response is something along the lines of, 'oh, he's surprisingly hot'. Yes, yes indeed. But there's something else in the performance that leads Isabelle to listen through his back catalogue one afternoon. The Promised Land comes on, and it's the song that truly turns her ear to Springsteen; so much so that eventually she'll become the kind of fan who can date a photograph of him just from the length of his sideburns.

The Promised Land reels her in to the shores of Springsteen, if you will. There's just something about that song, the way it instantly tears open your defences to beat alongside a thing so deep and raw within you. I got the radio on and I'm just killing' time ... Driving all night chasing some mirage ... Blow away the dreams that break your heart ... I believe in a promised land. 

I guess maybe one reason this song works so well is because, despite its title, the lyrics refer to 'a' promised land, not 'the'. Springsteen's not talking about a specific Land of Milk and Honey, Shangri-La, Arcadia, nirvana. Like many of his songs, the idea of a utopian 'someplace better' remains just that, an idea. Specific definition and detail aren't important; it's the motivation behind the longing that remains true, a central thread unifying all Americans - all humans - regardless of background or religion. The song is stubbornly secular, even though its themes are the same ones religion loves to grapple with: work, faith, commitment, redemption, the hope of something better, doing your best to 'live the right way' despite your constant desire to head 'straight into the storm'. They're questions relatable and accessible to everybody.

The Promised Land is one of the first songs that hooks me in, too. I'm about nineteen years old, and I'm in between things: school and university, adolescence and adulthood, dependence and independence. I'm also struggling to construct the next hour of my life, let alone the next few years, and every day I walk the streets of my small hometown to my quiet retail jobs, thinking that there must be something more than this. Thinking: I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode / Explode and tear this town apart / Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart / Find somebody itching for something to start.

Eventually I find the courage to start something, and five or six years later, I'm much further down a better road. But every time I hear The Promised Land, every time Springsteen whips a harmonica from his back pocket and the crowd roars along to the opening chords, I get that same half-frustrated, half-ecstatic, but overall life-affirming feeling, the sense that I can and will find a better place. Because that's perhaps the most significant thing about The Promised Land: no matter where you are in life, it'll always speak to your yearning to head into the storm in search of something greater.

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