Friday, February 24, 2012

This Depression

by Gregg Chadwick

This Depression
(Song by Song Review of Bruce Springsteen's New Album - Wrecking Ball)

"Pessimism and optimism are slammed up against each other in my records, the tension between them is where it's all at, it's what lights the fire.":
 - Bruce Springsteen, Paris, February 2012

Margaret Bourke-White
The Louisville Flood
 9 11/16'" × 13 3/8" gelatin silver print mounted on board 1937
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Midway through Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen's haunting song This Depression (Listen Here) limns the album's lowest emotional point. In contemporary America, empathy seems to be an underrated virtue. Talk radio and squawking television news channels attempt to prejudice their audience with the idea that economic victims of this latest recession have created their own reality through a lack of hard work or because of some sort of moral failing. In an unjustly weighted society split between haves and have-nots, social mobility is nothing more than a pipe dream. Those who attempt to cross the economic divide are doomed to fail while playing on Wall Street's real life version of Chutes and Ladders.

This is a subject that Bruce Springsteen knows well. In a recent press junket in Paris, Springsteen said, "my father had been emasculated by losing his job in the 70s and that he never recovered from the damage to his pride. Unemployment is a really devastating thing. I know the damage it does to families. Growing up in that house there were things you couldn't say. It was a minefield. My mother was the breadwinner. She was steadfast and relentless and I took that from her."

This Depression opens with slapping drums, mournful synth, a ghostly choir and Springsteen's gritty evocation of time's wounds.  Tom Morello's guitar sweeps in with washes and sighs. The singer, perhaps reminiscent of Springsteen's father, sings for hope, love, and retribution:

Baby, I've been down, but never this down
I've been lost, but never this lost
This is my confession, I need your heart
In this depression, I need your heart

Gregg Chadwick
Poem of L.A.
12"x12" oil on wood 2010 

In This Depression, Springsteen sings of the things that couldn't be said through the voice of a man who has lost his job and who yearns for the certainty of place and meaning that comes with employment:

Baby, I've been low, but never this low 
I've had my faith shaken, but never hopeless
This is my confession, I need your heart
In this depression, I need your heart

Destitute peapickers in California. Florence Owens Thompson
Mother of seven children.
Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. 
photo by Dorothea Lange 1936 March
 The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Listening to This Depression, I think of Dorothea Lange's portrait of Florence Owens Thompson. The portrait is visually well known but the subject is almost as anonymous as the woman Leonardo da Vinci depicted in the Mona Lisa. 

Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa 
photo by Gregg Chadwick
The Louvre
Paris, France

The Mona Lisa has obviously become an icon as has Dorothea Lange's portrait. Geoffrey Dunn in the San Jose Metro reported that Florence Owens Thompson "came to regret that Lange ever made the photographs, which she felt permanently colored her with a 'Grapes of Wrath' stereotype. Thompson, a Native American from Oklahoma, had already lived in California for a decade when Lange photographed her. The immediate popularity of the images in the press did nothing to alleviate the financial distress that had spurred the family to seek seasonal agricultural work. Contrary to the despairing immobility the famous image seems to embody, however, Thompson was an active participant in farm labor struggles in the 1930s, occasionally serving as an organizer. Her daughter later commented, 'She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that's one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn't show her in that light.'1"

Springsteen is cogniscent of this possibility. The first person delivery of This Depression forces us to confront the pain and emotional depression of the singer and hopefully embrace the possibility of healing. What is needed is empowerment, not charity - programs, not canned goods. Those without jobs, without hope, without place, need employment, empathy and possibility.

And I've always been strong, but I've never felt so weak
And all my prayers have gone for nothing
I've been without love, but never forsaken
Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking

 Springsteen's This Depression echoes his recent statement that, “My job is to do for you what Bob Dylan did for me, kick open the door to your mind, reach for something higher than yourself and grovel around for something lower too. That’s the job: to be paid for something that can’t be bought.”

1. Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” San Jose Metro, January 19-25, 1995, p. 22

All lyrics from This Depression -  Copyright © Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP)

More Song by Song Reviews of Wrecking Ball:

More at:

"Bruce Springsteen's widescreen vision of America on Wrecking Ball is filled with terror, tension, tenacity and above all else, triumph which may not replenish your bank account, but it will replenish your soul."
-Anthony Kuzminski, Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball, antiMusic
All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
The Working Man's Voice - The Wall Street Journal
Parsing the Samples and Quotes on Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen, Théatre Marigny press conferenceParis, February 2012

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