Tribal drums and a sort of air raid siren start things off—cries of danger soon answered by, oddly enough, a relatively optimistic guitar riff, a bold bass line and glockenspiel twinkling like starlight. “We Take Care of Our Own” is a pop song struggling to emerge from disaster. Well, that’s an optimistic take. While the sound reminds me a little of “The Rising,” that's not the direction I hear because it’s also a rock anthem trapped in a whirlpool.
Perhaps because he fears the stakes of getting it wrong, perhaps because he intensely feels the paranoia he wants to rail against, Springsteen keeps his voice relatively low from the beginning of the song to the end. His story is that he can’t find his way where he needs to be, and he’s running out of answers. He sees losses he’s sung about before, but he’s not seeing many wins. And as “hearts turn to stone” and “good intentions run dry as a bone,” he answers with an ethos any Springsteen fan recognizes, the walk the artist has long walked—“We take care of our own.” If nothing else, Springsteen makes the best albums he knows how to make and the price of a ticket promises the best show he can deliver, both the quintessential rock and roll concert and something somehow bigger than that sounds—“The Greatest Show On Earth” of his character Wild Billy’s circus dreams.
“We Take Care of Our Own” quickly becomes a song about dreams turned to lies (and some things worse) as the singer begins to name the places where America hasn’t taken care of its own—“from the shotgun shack to the Superdome.” Slamming industrial door percussion punctuates each example, and as it declares “the cavalry stayed home,” cinematic strings suggest all those movies that made us believe in another kind of America. This sets up a musical interlude which leads to the crucial bridge, a series of questions searching for the right way to respond—for help and for direction.
The lyric ends searching for that “brotherhood” we all know from Katharine Lee Bates’ lyric to “America, the Beautiful.” Springsteen asks, “Where’s the promise/from sea to shining sea/wherever this flag is flown?” It reminds me of the way Marvin Gaye once sang the national anthem, turning it into a question about the country under which that flag waves.
As an artist whose most iconic images are tied up with the American flag, whose career has repeatedly pushed for America to live up to its own promises, to truly be a land of hopes and dreams, it’s safe to say Bruce Springsteen’s asking a very personal question. The song swells at this point with exuberant hoots and anguished cries of “our own” and almost whimsical “la la las”—the near cacophony sounds a little like every record this Jersey boy’s ever made playing at once, revolving around that question. The only answer in evidence is the music itself, but even that seems to be in jeopardy. Perhaps that’s why, aside from those backing vocals deep in the mix, the main vocal in this song never shouts out—Springsteen pushes hard on each line, but he keeps his voice down.
Bruce Springsteen has never sounded more isolated. As Backstreets’ Chris Phillips points out, “we take care of our own,” was a slogan tossed around by whites shooting blacks in the wake of Katrina. “We take care of our own” is, on one hand, a mobster’s creed. And, on another, “we take care of our own” means bailing out Wall Street. Meanwhile, the continued trend toward shipping jobs overseas, the shabby treatment of our troops and the movement toward privatization of virtually every governmental responsibility—from clean air, to clean water, to the postal service, sanitation, social security, education and even the preservation of the national parks—shows “we take care of our own” is anything but a Washington priority. Only naiveté would make us think it would be a motto for Wall Street.
So, I hear Springsteen’s song as both desperate and intentionally ambiguous because he knows enough to know he can’t even name the flag he’s singing about, the flag he dreams of. He has always said that his belief in America is rooted in a big-hearted ideal of America, a vision of America not everyone shares. In that context, and in this moment more than ever before—the One Percent distracting us all from what really matters with insane amounts of campaign spending—the question of American identity is up for grabs. Springsteen’s entire career says his “our own” means brothers and sisters around the globe, but the job starts at home. Toward that end, to my ears, “We Take Care of Our Own” puts the meaning of America—of government "of the people, by the people and for the people”— on the line.