It’s a new year and we’re trying to keep up the blog as an ongoing hobby. I’ve been enjoying writing the Title Bout series, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them too. Let me know if so (or if not)! I’m going to continue to put out a new bout every month on the 16th for the foreseeable future. Let’s get to the first one of 2014…
Even before hearing one of the songs themselves, “Mansion On The Hill” evokes pure Americana. And in that realm, it is hard to get much more conventional than a man playing a guitar and harmonica and singing with a rough, complex voice. Enter the stripped down version of Bruce Springsteen. We can tell the mansion in his song is far away, elevated beyond reach, “rising above the factories and the fields.” And although it is an unreachable place, in the song it does not feel like an unwelcoming one. While there is plenty of reflection on isolation throughout Nebraska, this tune provides meditative, inclusive, and almost uplifting moments. The interests of the people who live and party in the mansion are probably at odds with those who watch from afar (steel gates are mentioned twice in succession), except perhaps on this particular summer night, when it is made personal through the lens of memory: “Ever since I was a child/ I can remember that mansion on the hill.” Mostly sparse throughout, the instrumentation blooms a bit to illustrate a father and son parking on a dusty road. The glow and the sound of music provide a dull ache of longing that is also accompanied by possibility. At least someone gets to live in that beautiful place up there. At least the night is warm. The mansion’s distance makes it small and comprehensible; we get to see it simultaneously as someone’s home and as a thing of awe.
Neil Young’s song is a nice complement due to its rock angle, with an early guitar solo seeming to mirror Springsteen’s opening harmonica. His sketch is a bit more abstract, in regular Crazy Horse form. The background vocals provide a light floating feeling while Young describes a place that also refers to music filling the air, this time of the psychedelic type. Perhaps it’s a mystical mansion, because on the way to or from you can go “around the next bend” to “take the highway to the sun.” The tone seems a bit serious during the instrumental breaks, but then those oooh-oooh-ooohs always pick things back up. At this mansion, “peace and love live there still,” and it is used as a destination to “get off that road of tears.” The song churns into repetition for the outro (not unexpected for NY&CH listeners), as if to remind us that yes, the mansion is still there, and will likely continue to endure. Perhaps Neil’s mansion is a bit more heavenly, a place of healing and rest.
I must admit that these two were hard to compare objectively because I’m a big Neil Young fan but have not listened to much Springsteen in my life. Whenever I heard the title “Mansion On The Hill,” I would expect the Young track, to the point where partway through The National’s cover I would wonder to myself, “Is this how that Neil Young song goes? Something doesn’t sound right…” Realizing now that Springsteen seems to have a more definitive stake on the title, I wonder why Young chose to use it at all (unless he were to tackle a cover version). Further, the musicians obviously hang in the same circles and share fans, so I wonder how many people would automatically think of the Springsteen tune every time. But a quick click revealed that the phrase goes deeper into the roots of American folk music, one of those concepts that are temping to grab and put a distinct mark upon, ever open to interpretation. Outside of music, the phrase goes way back to the “city upon a hill” of Puritan history in this country, evoking a beacon of morality, wealth, leadership, or dominance. Both these songs seem to carry dusty echoes of what these things have meant in our past. If you wrote of a mansion on a hill, what sort of message would shine out to the people below? Who will write the next one?
Winner: Don’t get me wrong, I can (do) gladly listen to Crazy Horse for hours, but Springsteen’s haunted yet focused landscape takes the prize.
Bruce Springsteen – Mansion On The Hill (1982) – (not the original track, but a modern live take with more twang)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Mansion On The Hill (1990) – (the actual music video which I had not seen before–nice acting there, Neil!)