Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time
"Better Days" - Bruce Springsteen
Written by Bruce Springsteen
From Lucky Town (Columbia, 1992)
A slightly different version of this V-C-V was originally published on pcmunoz.com on August 9, 2005
Bruce Springsteen has long dealt with intense, powerful subject matter. The characters in his songs are often trying to find their place in life while battling the burdens of fleshly weakness and spiritual frailty, attempting to make sense of the various ties that bind them to people and places.
"Better Days" is the lead-off track from 1992's Lucky Town, one of the two discs Springsteen simultaneously released that year (the other album was called Human Touch). It was not made in collaboration with the E-Street Band. Much of the relationship-oriented material on the record deals with the idea of renewed hope, after a wrong turn in the recent past. "Better Days", particularly, seems to be the light at the end of the dark "tunnel of love" Springsteen so thoroughly described in the album which preceded Lucky Town and Human Touch.
"Better Days" sounds like a critical self-examination; a close look at himself as an artist and as a man. It serves as a testimony to Springsteen's depth that after the mammoth success of Born in the USA, he turned his observant eye on himself...and didn't like what he saw. What Springsteen is exploring here is nothing short of foundation-shaking; he's dealing with truths weaker-spirited men couldn't possibly handle. The creeping self-loathing of lines like "It's a sad, funny ending / When you find yourself pretending / A rich man in a poor man's shirt" are especially striking. I always understand those lines as another demonstration of Springsteen's ultimate concern with connectedness and consistency. After all, many famous songwriters who choose to ruminate on the darker side of fame and fortune tend to write about privacy issues, or the sacrifices they feel they make as a celebrity (which are legitimate, often true concerns). Aptly, though, Springsteen's gaze here is aimed at what he perceives to be an inconsistency in the authenticity of his vision. Dig, again: "Now a life of leisure / And a pirate's treasure / Don't make much for tragedy / But it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin / And can't stand the company."
It's a soul-shaker to recognize that you are no longer who you proclaim to be, and even more gut-wrenching to realize your own trusted instincts may have led you astray. In "Better Days", Springsteen acknowledges that he has struggled with some of the penetrating self-doubts and personal let-downs we all experience when confronted with our own failures and shortcomings.
Musically, "Better Days" is a strong rock pounder, with classic Springsteen guitars and a blockbuster chorus which Springsteen belts with cathartic ferocity. Despite all the pain and darkness, though, there is no doubt that ultimately, "Better Days" is a song of hope. It is about winding your way through a "dark night of the soul" (to reference Springsteen's Catholic upbringing) and finding your holy union on the other side. In Bruce's case, his "dark night" included a fairly public divorce, then a leap of faith towards a new beginning with Jersey homegirl (now longtime wife) Patti Scialfa.
"Better Days" is a song to which I often turn when my own jaw-dropping personal weaknesses and inconsistencies prove again to be surprising and disappointing. As a songwriter, I often use "Better Days" as a model of bold, bare, emotional truth-telling. It is not to be missed by anyone who appreciates Springsteen's writing.
Bruce Springsteen's birthday, which he shares with John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Ani DiFranco, and myself (deep, humbling company, those four!), is this week -- September 23rd. Happy Birthday, Bruce, and thanks for the great work and inspiration.