Springsteen has always had a knack for dissecting the lives of the downhearted. “Jackson Cage” is one such character study, an incisive look at a girl whose life is a prison that’s caused only in part by circumstance. His point here is that sometimes people can be beat down so much that they fail to realize that there’s a way up, and they end up only contributing to their own misery.
“Jackson Cage” is one of the many songs on The River that are all about the economy and efficiency of the package; it’s why the album is one of the rare double LP’s that doesn’t feel bloated. The band sinks their teeth into a tight arrangement with all the pieces interlocking brilliantly. Bruce also zigs when you would expect him to zag in the instrumental section by dropping a harmonica solo into the thunderous rock background.
The lyrics are effective because they don’t pull any punches. Bruce’s words make it clear of the consequences here: “Every day ends in wasted motion/Just crossed swords on the killing floor.” This doesn’t seem like hyperbole, because this girl is dying inside little by little.
Springsteen wails in the lead-up to the chorus with the strangled voice he used on Darkness On The Edge Of Town, valiantly trying to get through to this girl. He knows that ultimately it’s up to her to turn the key, but his powerful argument at least should show her to the door.