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The Promised Land

Review The Promised Land, Bruce Springsteen

Aggiornato il 4 Mar, 2024 | Words and Music |

The Promised Land is one of the precious gems included on Bruce Springsteen‘s 1978 album Darkness On The Edge Of Town. When he wrote the songs for the 1978 great record, Springsteen was at the age where a young man realizes that the pindaric flights of youth towards a metaphorical promised land are often deceptive. During that time he had been caught in the tangled skein of his contract with Mike Appel, but he was strenuously trying to get out of it. He understood that his life, like that of ordinary people, was more problematic than he had sung three years earlier in Born To Run. Darkness On The Edge Of Town was the result of that restless period. Dark songs, in which the sense of defeat and disillusionment can be felt. Even the songs full of angry hope, such as Badlands and The Promised Land, tell of strenuous struggles to resist and seek at least a dignified existence.


In The Promised Land a young man realizes that life is not that dreamlike journey to the sun in Born To Run, nor that escape from a town of losers sung in Thunder Road. Life is the early morning alarm clock and hard work in the father’s workshop. Fortunately, there is at least one job: at the end of the month, a paycheck arrives that allows the boy to think of a girl to take care of. But there come moments when he feels like he wants to explode, also because he remembers the times when he had very different expectations for his life. There comes tiredness and anger: “Your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold, sometimes I feel so weak that I want to explode.” There are those who give up, like the lost kids in Something In The Night, but there are also those who react.


Like the worker of Badlands, a man with a burnt back but clear ideas, the young man of The Promised Land also fight against adverse destiny, represented by the dark clouds that rise from the desert floor. In the chorus he firmly declares that he is no longer a boy, but that he has become a man. And above all, he shouts that he still believe in that promised land he and Mary wanted to reach in Thunder Road. But the promised land is no longer a walk in the sun, now it is a more earthly place where a man can live in dignity. A very strong declaration that the man does not make in front of a flag with stars and stripes, nor climbing the steps of Capitol Hill, but walking down the street in his Midwest town, when he notices that some dogs are yelping to get his attention, asking a little solidarity and caresses. An image as simple as it is extraordinary: this honest dignity is the new promised land. A concept that leads straight to John Steinbeck and the pride of his Tom Joad.


In the third verse comes the angry reaction, the declaration of war on anything that intends to stand between the protagonist and his goal. Let the illusory dreams that can devastate existence be swept away, creating expectations and then turning into lies. A theme taken up two years later in The River (“Is a dream a lie, if it don’t come true, or is it something worse”). In The Promised Land the young man is still alone, in The River there is a couple facing the tough situation. This strong link between the epic pieces that preceded it (Born To Run and Thunder Road) and other great masterpieces that followed it (such as The River) makes The Promised Land a fundamental chapter in the great Springsteen novel.


The Promised Land is a rock ballad which, while also including electric instruments, has its roots in the most classic folk-rock. For this reason (and thanks to its deeply significant lyrics), despite its relatively ordinary musical motif and its even catchy refrain, it rises to one of the pillars of Springsteen‘s discography. But there is another aspect that makes The Promised Land so epic: Springsteen decided to make it a musical manifesto of his E Street Band. He achieved this goal by letting the central solo after the second chorus split into five parts: Roy Bittan‘s piano is followed by Danny Federici‘s organ and Steve Van Zandt‘s guitar. Then comes the imperious sax of Clarence Clemons, before closing on Bruce‘s harmonica. An instrumental recording which, in addition to giving great dynamics to the song, also becomes a sort of musical communion between Springsteen and his band. In the live versions, then, the song took on a more rock mood, in which Bruce decided to further lengthen the times of the central solo, in particular the wonderful one by Clemons, to further strengthen that cathartic moment. In a sense, it is not only Bruce, but the whole band who impersonate “the twister that blows everything down, that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.” They are the ones who, having become men, will continue the search for a promised land.

Bruce, Jackson and Bono

Springsteen wrote the refrain of The Promised Land long before composing the rest of the lyrics. Those lines – “Mister, I ain’t a boy. No, I’m a man and I believe in the promised land” – became a fundamental moment in his poetics. Their relevance was testified by two episodes. In 1979, during the No Nukes concerts, Bruce dedicated the song to Jackson Browne, encouraging him to believe in his fight for clean energy against all odds and headwinds. The same verses were then taken up by Bono of U2, at the end of the performance of Pride (In The Name Of Love), when Springsteen was in charge of the induction of the famous Irish quartet into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2005.


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Dario Migliorini


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