DISCLAIMER: This is the start of a recurring theme on Nasti Thoughts, where I will take a current song or album and relate it to the current political landscape, arguably the most tumultuous since the 1960s’.
When it comes to writing songs that reflect the socio-political landscape at any given times, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are usually at the top of their list. Despite employing different styles (Dylan cryptic and poetic, Bruce more economic, straightforward and cinematic)
Such music has rarely been more relevant than today: from the mysterious smoke and mirrors show of Trump’s cabinet to the wily, unorthodox and just plain offensive actions and speeches of the President himself, we are living in strange, scary times. Manipulation is a powerful tool and complacency is at an all time high. People are hurting and are easily swayed by fallacious ideas that appeal to their basest interest.
Bob’s Oh Mercy and Springsteen’s Magic were recorded nearly 20 years apart (1989 for Bobby Z, however I listened to both of these albums again recently and couldn’t help but notice several similarities between the two albums: both Magic and Oh Mercy are regarded as twilight-era highlights in both artists’ careers (with the latter arguably being the unofficial start to Dylan’s mid-1990s’ renaissance), but the similarities go much deeper than that.
Both albums begin with charging, paranoid rockers that speak about fractured systems we once believed in, and how the dissonance within both leads to disconnection and isolation: “Radio Nowhere” and “Political World.” Bob and Bruce also return to this well with “Everything is Broken” and “Livin’ in the Future.” albeit less successfully, in my opinion. Both albums also have prayers for a fallen world, one lost due to the distortion of our values; Bruce’s is more hopeful and determined (“Long Walk Home”), while Bob’s is more solemn and resigned if not outright doubtful of redemption (“Ring Them Bells”).
Failed romance is also a theme, and both have the narrators in denial of their heartache: Bruce masks his with bravado and humor (“Girls in their Summer Clothes”), while Bob knows deep down it still haunts him, but he’s able to shrug it off as long as he’s not alone (“Most of the Time”).
Several tracks draw their power from the unsettling vagueness: “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Magic” (as well as “Your Own Worst Enemy”) both deal with a mysterious stranger with a darkly captivating pull, whose power and identity are never quite identified; furthermore, both songs also use trees as symbols of doom (“bodies hanging in the trees,” “…African trees bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze…,” “…tree trunks uprooted ‘neath the high crescent moon…”). Also falling into this category is Bobby’s “What Was It You Wanted,” another song that has no clear narrative beyond a series of questions posed, and sounds all the darker because of it.
Finally both songs close out, albeit unofficially in Bruce’s case, with deeply mournful, personal songs: “Terry’s Song” and “Shooting Star.” As has been the case thus far, Bruce’s is more hopeful and chooses to look at the loss with a positive outlook: “love is a power stronger than death.” Bob’s, on the other hand, paints a more tragic, almost apocalyptic portrait, with references to the “sermon on the mount” and “the last temptation”; the person he’s singing about seems to have missed their chance for redemption.
While not all of this is overtly political, much can be tied towards the sense of dread permeating through much of the United States right now. These themes – isolation, heartbreak, betrayal, loss of our values – are deeply on the minds of Americans under Trump, and Bob and Bruce convey these concerns beautifully in each of their own inimitable style.
Be on the lookout for next month’s edition.