This song, the closing track off Magic (not counting the “hidden” track “Terry’s Song,”) shows some signs of strain as it attempts to be the all-encompassing anthem to sum up the disparate themes of that standout album. Still, it swings for the fences with such gusto that it’s still quite powerful, a damn impressive track that hits far more than it misses.
Where it does miss is in the fact that the hugeness of it can be a bit overbearing. From the atmospheric opening to the slow build-up to the thunderous climax, it groans with the weight of all of the effort that was clearly put into it to create a memorable album closer.
Compare it to the simple but unsettling “Wreck On The Highway” off The River, or the desperately romantic “Valentine’s Day” off Tunnel Of Love. Those songs closed out their respective albums powerfully and appropriately without resorting to the big-statement theatrics of “Devil’s Arcade.”
And yet there are moments of undeniably stunning brilliance in the track. Springsteen has always understood that the way to tackle some great topic, which in this case is the, is to tell an affecting, small-scale tale of the individuals involved. In this song, it’s a wounded vet and his wife waiting at his bedside who recounts the story in fragments that jump through time as the memories flow through her.
The sweet remembrance of their first sexual fumblings is shattered by the explosion that caused his injuries. It all ends in a hospital ward (“A sea with no name/Where you lie adrift with the heroes of the devil’s arcade.”) Along the way, Bruce throws in some subtly stinging barbs about how a soldier ultimately pays for the decisions of those in power (“Somebody made a bet/Somebody paid.”)
The final verse is heartbreaking and potent, as the wife imagines a future life for the pair that likely will never be: “A house on a quiet street, a home for the brave/The glorious kingdom of the sun on your face.” The band starts crashing in all around Bruce as he gets to the line “the beat of your heart,” repeating it over and over as if trying to will this fallen hero back to life. It’s at this point when “Devil’s Arcade” achieves those lofty heights and you can forgive it for the times it comes up short.
My sincere thanks to the unknown artist of the sketch above!