Springsteen is a natural storyteller, creating vivid characters in his songs, filling their hard lives with unforgettable details. And those characters all seem to occupy a similar space on the desperate margins of American life.
There's the kid in "The River" who gets his girlfriend pregnant: "And for my 19th birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat / We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest / No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress."
There's the desperate scammer of "Atlantic City," hoping that he can escape his problems by doing just one shady job for Mob-connected gambling bosses: "I been looking a job but it's hard to find / Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line / Well I'm tired of coming out on this losing end / So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him."
There's the condemned murderer of "Johnny 99": "Well Judge, Judge, I had debts no honest man could pay / The bank was holding my mortgage, they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain't saying that makes me an innocent man / But there was more to all this that put that gun in my hand."
There's the wistful native son of "My Hometown": "Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores / Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more / They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks / Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back."
These are Springsteen's people, hardworking ordinary folks whose worlds are crashing down around them, usually due to forces outside their own control. If John Steinbeck was the voice of the Dust Bowl, then Springsteen is the bard of the Rust Belt. (And it's no accident that Springsteen once released an album called The Ghost of Tom Joad.) Wherever a factory is shuttered, a union man loses his job, or a Main Street shop closes its doors for the last time, Springsteen is there. Wherever the American Dream is hanging on by the most tenuous of threads, Springsteen is singing songs of hope and sorrow.