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It starts the way it means to continue: with a glorious blast of drums, guitars, pianos, organs, saxophones – the E Street band in full flight. This is an album to stir the loins of Bruce Springsteen fans, resurrecting the desperate, fist-waving bravura of much-loved classics Born to Run and Born in the USA in a life-affirming surge of rock and roll, soul, blues and gospel, all merged together in a Spector-esque wall of sound.
The drums go boom-cha-boom on You'll Be Comin' Down, Clarence Clemons's sax punches a hole through Living in the Future, and a church bell can even be heard ringing out on Your Own Worst Enemy.
But, as on Springsteen's earlier masterpieces, the underlying sentiment is much darker and more subtle than the swaggering music implies. As everyone knows, your own worst enemy is yourself, and Springsteen turns a mordant eye on the changes in his own country since 9/11.
On the surface, these are personal vignettes of love and betrayal, but there is not a song here that does not lend itself to a more political interpretation. The darkness on the edge of town has spread through the whole nation, and where Springsteen protagonists once yearned to escape stultifying small towns, now he mourns the passing of a place where "you knew who you were… the people were at ease, baby slept in peace". Empty streets have become a symbol of a deeper malaise, like the diner "shuttered and boarded, with a sign that just said 'gone'?".
Amid all the sound and fury, the key is the quiet, folky title track, in which Springsteen's huckster magician lures his audience in, only to perform a sleight of hand that makes their very freedom disappear, leaving "bodies hanging in the trees / This is what will be".
Springsteen can be a downbeat writer, his voice mournful, his lyrics grappling with the contradictions of the human condition, but with the E Street band unleashed, the sheer joy of musical communion sugar-coats the bitterest pills. On Living in the Future, the bandleader roars: "Is that rolling thunder/ or just the sinking sound of something righteous going under?" It might just be the sound of the E Street Band, arriving like the cavalry.
Merci à Christine !