Bruce Springsteen has always been a master at capturing working-class angst, whether in his harrowing descriptions of small-town, blue-collar life in the Reagan era, on classics like Nebraska, or his most recent album, which invokes one my personal favorite outbursts of labor strife – the great strike of 1877 – to provide pointed commentary about life in Great Recession America. Downbound Train, is nestled among some of Springsteen’s greatest, and most well-known hits, on Born in the USA, and though it is certainly not the most memorable track of this classic album, it is an excellent example of The Boss’s ability to speak to the ills of the downtrodden American working class.
On a most basic level, riding on a Downbound Train describes the way the narrator feels after suffering a series of romantic and economic setbacks, including the departure of his lover, and layoffs at the lumberyard that left him working a dead-end job at a car wash. Train imagery runs throughout the song, as the man hears a whistle whining when he misses his wife at night and in the end, the troubled narrator’s downward spiral ends up with him actually working on the railroad, swinging a hammer on a railroad gang in an echo of John Henry’s demise. In contrast to train songs that use the railroad as a vehicle for salvation, or a means for escape to a better life, the train imagery in Downbound Train is almost exclusively negative in nature, perfectly capturing the downfall of a man constrained by larger economic forces, and tortured by the failure of a relationship.
In the hands of Kurt Vile, the Philadelphia-based indie/folk troubadour, the sad tale of Downbound Train is updated for our own troubled times. Reverb-drenched guitars and Vile’s distinctively ennui-filled vocals portray the desperation of the narrator in an even darker tone. As with many of Kurt Vile’s songs, the twisting and turning guitar leads are a highlight here. The song ends with a lengthy guitar solo, opting to slowly drift away to an conclusion where Springsteen’s song simply turned down the volume. In light of Vile’s discography full of slacker anthems (commentators have even gone so far as to label him the patron saint for the Great Recession’s legions of accidental bohemians) one can see why Vile chose to cover Downbound Train. I would be remiss if I did not point out that Kurt Vile’s new album also drops this week, and though it is sadly bereft of train songs, its a worthy addition to his discography.