There's a line from "Long Walk Home" on the new album that has tremendous power. A father tells his son that the flag flying above the courthouse means "certain things are set in stone . . . what we'll do and what we won't." But we live in a moment where those things aren't set in stone.
No, because those things have been chipped away at horrendously. Who would have ever thought we'd live in a country with no right to habeas corpus? That's Orwellian. That's what political hysteria is about and how effective it is. I felt it in myself. You get frightened for your family, for your home. And you realize how countries can move way off course, very far from democratic ideals. Add another terrorist attack or two, and the country can turn into a pretty scary place. Philip Roth caught it in The Plot Against America: It happens in a very American way – the flag is flying over civil liberties as they crumble. It was a fascinating insight.
You mentioned Philip Roth. Are there other things you were reading that had an impact on the record?
Not really. I'd been influenced a lot in the past through books and films, but I would say on this record I got re-infatuated with pop music. Pete Seeger says, "I want to know, 'What's the song for? What's the job it's supposed to do?' " I carry a little bit of that with me, but I'm a pop kid. I grew up on Top Forty. Sometimes what the song is for is just the way it makes you feel. On this record, I wanted a lot of that. There's some classic Sixties pop forms. California-rock influences – Pet Sounds and a lot of Byrds. I wanted to take the productions that create the perfect pop universes and then subvert them with the lyrics – fill them with the hollowness and the fear, the uneasiness of these very uneasy times.
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" is a crooning Sixties ballad, but it creates an ideal picture that stands in juxtaposition to what's running through the inside of this record. There's a diner on two songs, and they're very different. There's the one in "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" – Frankie's Diner, on the edge of town, with neon signs – and then there's the diner with the sign that just says gone [on "Long Walk Home"]. I believe in them both. Those are the parameters of what I'm talking about, right there.
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" is one of several songs that seem to call back to your earlier work.
It's straight-out big. I don't think I've written as romantically as I allowed myself to do on that song maybe since Born to Run. This record, I felt free to go back to the romanticism of my earliest records. I doubled my voice, I sang in a bigger voice. I'm actually looking forward to writing a little bit more in that style, to picking up some of those elements that I discarded because I wanted to make sure that the music was tough enough for the subjects I was interested in dealing with. That's what I did with Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska and parts of The River. But now, I feel free enough to go back and reclaim those lovely elements of pop simplicity and the well-crafted three-and-a-half-minute song, which I love to do.
Did working on the thirtieth-anniversary edition of "Born to Run" open that up?
I forgot how good that record was. I hadn't listened to it in many, many years. Born to Run was criticized as being too romantic. I was in that part of my career where I was reacting. Once you gain some attention, you're reacting to . . . maybe it's success, or something you overheard passing down the street. And so I moved toward darkness. But part of the things I was frightened of were the reasons why it lasted: because it was romantic.
But even then, I filled the romanticism with darkness. It was a post-Vietnam record, and you can hear, once again, the uneasiness and the fear and the concern about the future. The classic line of "Thunder Road," which I wrote at twenty-four, was "We're not that young anymore." That came right out of the last years of the war. Nobody felt that young anymore. All that's in there. It has some of my greatest songs on it. I set out the parameters of the world I was going to be investigating.
It's interesting – I didn't think about that, but I really wanted that. All the little different effects we had. I always loved those little pop symphonies, so on this record, I had a chance to play around with some of that. "Your Own Worst Enemy" was one of my big pop productions. The lyrics are "we're always teetering on the edge," and it's all about self-subversion. You can take it personally or politically. That's what gives the record its tension, those two things - the perfect pop universe and then what's at its center. "Living in the Future" has a very boardwalk sound, but it's about how terribly fucked up things have gotten. It's a song about apathy, and how what you never thought could happen has happened already. I tried to combine personal and political, so you can read into the songs either way. You can read the record as a comment on what's been going on, or you can read it just as relationship songs.
It's effective. It has an allegorical power.
Yeah. Despite the interview here, I didn't want a big Bush-bashing record. It's been done, and that's not really what people needed, or maybe it's just not what I needed right now. Your writing has to be multidimensional to remain interesting, to have life. You're not headline-writing. I've found ways to express my political concerns and personal concerns, and I always found them best combined, because that's how people live.
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