Quietly, perhaps surprisingly, Bruce Springsteen has begun writing anthems again. A new song called “My City of Ruins” marks his best work since Born in the U.S.A., though it’s not included on his new Live in New York City. For now, the track is available only illegally, online, having been recorded by fans during December concerts in Asbury Park. Coming nearly 30 years into his career, the song manages to chart new ground for Springsteen by washing away the broad distinction between his personal songs (which often demand action in general situations: “We gotta get out while we’re young”) and his political ones (which observe characters in specific social circumstances; think of the Vietnam vet in “Born in the U.S.A.”).
Steeped in mid-’60s soul, complete with horns and minus the synth that’s become Springsteen’s atmospheric crutch, “My City of Ruins” has more in common with “People Get Ready” than just its stately pace and the melody it partly appropriates. Here, an everyman “I” (not an identifiable character, but perhaps Springsteen, the recent Jersey repatriate) describes a town decimated by poverty, where even the churches are drained of life and young men waste on the corner “like scattered leaves.”
But then—and this is the leap and the crux of the song’s success—the singer demands action. Springsteen transforms “Thunder Road” ‘s urge to “ride out” into the revolutionary refrain of “Rise up!,” a rare exhortation to his unseen audience, delivered with the genuine fervor of John the Baptist. While “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the ambiguous “My Hometown” paid witness, this song advises, just as “People Get Ready” advised listeners to prepare not only for a heavenly reward but for civil rights victory in America. “My City of Ruins” is Springsteen’s gospel imperative, imploring listeners not just to get ready, but to use their hands for work and prayer in the hard times ahead.