Gimme Five: Bruce Springsteen’s spiritual songs, including ‘My City of Ruins,’ ‘The Promised Land,’ ‘We Are Alive,’ others

Editor’s note: Bruce Springsteen’s discography, as he once famously said, has always existed inside that space between the American Dream and the reality that sometimes weighs on us all. A similar struggle with what we’d like to believe, versus the hard truths that are right in front of us, seemed to define his relationship with the church from an early age, as well.

Going forward, Springsteen would fight these battles on the grandest of scales as an artist, something that would define the man and his music far more than politics ever could.

Raised Catholic, Springsteen initially attended the Freehold Borough’s St. Rose of Lima school, and legend tells us he was consistently at odds with its rule-bound structure. Of course, Springsteen seemed to be just as unhapppy despite later transferring to a public high school in Freehold. Described as a loner, he was said to more interested in the guitar than in class work.

And so, an iconoclastic journey toward fame began — though, as we’ll hear, Springsteen never forgot the embedded lessons of the Catholic church or the parts of it that handcuffed him as a rambuctious youth.

Springsteen’s songs, in fact, are peopled with those who struggle to find salvation, both in this world and the next. At the same time, the influences of gospel and hymns can be traced deep into his compositional DNA. “Once a Catholic,” as he has admitted, “always a Catholic.”

We’ve selected five of our favorite spiritual Bruce Springsteen songs, and paired them with commentary from our own Springsteen-ologist, Mark Saleski …

“DEVILS AND DUST,” (DEVILS AND DUST, 2005): When this album was released, I was in the middle of a vacation. Late at night, sitting in a big comfy chair at our hotel, I sipped a glass of scotch while I listened. At first, what came through my little headphones was not the story of the title track’s conflicted soldier, but a short chain of Bruce-related memories that said a lot about my relationship to this music.

For people who are long-time fans of any music, the attached memories can grow in importance over time, making the music not just a “soundtrack” (Oh gawd, how I hate that “soundtrack of my life” description) but an integral part of the timeline. That time I listened to The Ghost of Tom Joad straight through with TheWife™? That shared experience was a revelation for us. We’d gone from lives where nothing was shared, escaping emotionally dead relationships to discover that perfect other person. Sharing was again possible.

When I hear Bruce sing “Fear’s a powerful thing; it can turn your heart black you can trust,” I think of those dark times and am glad to have come out on the other side.

So now when I hear this song — and particularly when the music swells at the midway point — I remember that one night at the hotel, and the Joad release, and Nebraska, and …

“ADAM RAISED A CAIN,” (DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, 1978): Bruce’s relationship with his father, described elliptically with Biblical imagery and tense, angry music. When I first heard Darkness, the LoudGuitarNerd™ in me totally dug the distorted lines that this song is built around. Bruce takes that solo, one that has everything to do with strangled, barely-controlled passion, which then pauses for that anguished, almost tribal cry … before dropping back into the next even more feverish verse. It’s a moment so common on this album, where emotions run high and dark — and relentless.

By the way, click here for the version that opened a Boston show I saw back in 1999. They kind of telegraphed it by setting up a wall of slowly building feedback. That was no spoiler though, as they pretty much exploded into it. And yeah, so did we.

“MY CITY OF RUINS,” (THE RISING, 2002): Written for the decay and subsequent revival of Asbury Park, “My City Of Ruins” has taken on many other roles since its release. For my money, the most moving and powerful context that Springsteen placed it in began with the gospel and horn-drenched unveiling at that legendary Apollo Theater show.

Bruce took the opportunity to transform a band roll call into a statement of solidarity with E Street Nation. Those who’d been lost (Danny and Clarence) were brought up with a simple question: “Are we missing anybody?” The reassurance — that they are not just “ghosts,” but indeed a part of us — came with this response:

The only thing I can guarantee tonight … if you’re here and we’re here, they’re here. If you’re here and we’re here … they’re here.

I had a strange thing happen with that moment of the Apollo show. The day after, me and TheWife™ had gone on a visit to the campus of my alma mater. She was there on business, while I wandered around trying not to be overwhelmed by memories. I was not particularly successful. After remembering just how proud my parents were to see me off to college, I had the urge to tell them just how nice it felt to be there again … but they’re no longer here. A few minutes later, I sat in my car and heard via email about the previous night’s Apollo show and Bruce’s statement. It was a weird and wonderful bit of synchronicity.

Some folks think that there’s no spiritual side to Bruce’s music, that we as fans can take nothing away for ourselves, that the shared experience has no value. They need to think a little harder about what “we” really means.

“THE PROMISED LAND,” (DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, 1978): To bear down and face life’s issues, to yearn for something better, that theme is the glue that holds Darkness on the Edge of Town together. Here, Bruce presents that feeling in the form of a man working through his life, hoping against hope that the dreams that do present themselves are the good ones. Kicking off with Springsteen’s iconic harmonica lines, and driven home by one of my favorite Big Man solos, this is a song that a friend of mine refers to as “God’s Favorite Song.”

When played live, “The Promised Land” brings out the communal nature of the E Street world. We might not agree on all topics and surely we differ on what a “Promised Land” might be, but when these lines are sung — and we all sing “Blow away” in unison — our differences disappear, if only for a few minutes.

Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted

“WE ARE ALIVE,” (WRECKING BALL, 2012): At the time, there was this notion that Wrecking Ball was going to be Bruce Springsteen’s “angriest” album. People seem to have in their heads a firm notion of what it means to be angry. So when the music surfaced, opinions crystallized around that thread, commonly expressing bemusement at the seeming lack of anger. Were they expecting 45 minutes of “Adam Raised A Cain”?

To me the emotion seemed obvious, a rage against economic injustice. That that rage came from many angles — employing everything from direct stories of despair to ironic near-parodies of criminal intent — did not diffuse the message. And yet, as the second half of the album gained momentum, it became obvious that Springteen was intent on letting light rays of hope cut through the darkness. “We Are Alive” brings Wrecking Ball to an end with a reminder that ideas, grand statements, and movements can’t be killed even as our physical selves die …

It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end

The musical quoting of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” is no cheap trick here, as it was a song that illustrated how love’s power can guide a person, ultimately transforming them. In “We Are Alive,” we have the ghosts of people who stood up for what they felt was right, raising their hands in unison. They loved their fellow man and took a stand, paying the ultimate price. They may be gone but their spirit and their ideals will never die.

We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder-to-shoulder and heart-to-heart

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.