Counting Down Bruce Springsteen Excerpt: #72 “Downbound Train”Posted: June 18, 2014
(Here is another exclusive excerpt from my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. Another one coming on Friday. Enjoy!)
Bruce Springsteen filled up an album with hard-luck tales of delusion and
defeat in 1984, yet ended up with not just the biggest hit of his career but
also one of the biggest hits of all time. The album was Born in the U.S.A.,
and Springsteen pulled off this sleight of hand by couching the downcast
stories in effervescent music.
It’s a pattern that repeats itself all through the album. Things don’t go
very well for the guys at the heart of “Darlington County” and “Working
on the Highway,” but you’d never know it from the light-hearted melodies
and ebullient arrangements. “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days” are relentless in their depictions of midlife crises and still they paraded through the Top 10. The title track was the biggest trickster of all, making fans feel patriotic about the United States with the music while castigating the country in the lyrics.
Such tactics are delicate and can only be pulled off by the nimblest of
songwriters, a group that certainly includes Springsteen. The one song on
the album where he chose to simply allow the darkness of the lyrics to
fully invade the music as well is “Downbound Train.” It’s a pretty bleak
affair, although Springsteen and the band make it palatable with a compelling performance.
Born in the U.S.A. is the first album where Springsteen made heavy
use of synthesizers, but he did it in such a way that it didn’t betray the
inherent earthiness of his music. The title track is just the most celebrated
example. On “Downbound Train,” the way the synths are played by Roy
Bittan manages to add interesting shades to the song without allowing
things to get too bright and take the sting out of the words.
Springsteen explained this technique to UK magazine International
Musician and Recording World in a 1984 interview. “Like on ‘Downbound
Train,’ it can sound pretty haunting,” he said, describing the synthesizer. “It gets this real austere sound, and I liked that. A little bit of coolness” That coolness perfectly plays off the minor keys and ominous guitars within the song.
“Downbound Train” was originally included as one of the demos that
became Nebraska, where it was performed at a much faster pace. It’s one
of the few survivors of the so-called Electric Nebraska sessions, whereby
Springsteen attempted to beef up those stark demos with a full-band
sound. What’s interesting is that the subject matter, a man pushed to the
limit by his dwindling work opportunities and the seemingly bottomless
despair of his surroundings, could easily have fit in on 2012’s Wrecking
Ball, an album released thirty years after the song was written. Come to
think about it, maybe depressing is a better way to describe that phenomenon than interesting.
The narrator quickly lets us in on his situation in the first few lines
with his use of the past tense: “I had a job, I had a girl / I had something
going mister in this world.” What follows are descriptions of a neverending
series of occupations and of his constant torment, the whistle in his ears pushing him deeper and deeper into the depths of his misery even as he hallucinates the kiss of his ex-lover on his lips.
Speaking of hallucinations, the elongated final verse plays out like a
fever dream that is representative of this character’s tortured state of
mind. It’s possible to take it literally, since it’s never expressly said that it
isn’t really happening, in which case the narrator would have to live
within running distance of where the woman lives even though they’re
separated by an entire forest. It’s more likely though that this guy’s mind
is playing tricks on him, buffeted as it is by the pressures of his life.
In any case, the build-up to the climax is painfully suspenseful, as the
low whine of the keyboards hints to us that there is no chance for a happy
reunion despite the man’s insistence on her need for him. Instead, he ends
up at his former home only to find it empty, at which point he collapses
pitifully in tears.
Springsteen wisely realized that this was a tale that no amount of chiming organs or whooping and hollering could, or should, for that matter, ever lighten up. This “Downbound Train” may not ever stop its descent, and what really makes the song so potent is the realization that this poor soul isn’t the only rider.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, is available now.)