Albums of the ’80s: The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby And The Range (Side B)

Hi Everybody! Today, Robert is wrapping up his review of Bruce Hornsby and The Range’s album The Way It Is. As I mentioned in the side A article, I am not a Hornsby fan at all. But, I kept an open mind. Well, I discovered something. The thing I don’t like about this band’s music is the piano. For some reason, his style irritates me. But there were a couple of songs from side A that I loved: “On the Western Skyline” and “The Long Race”. Neither feature the piano. Now as we listen to side B, let’s see if there are any more gems I’ve been missing out on all these years. Take it away, Robert!

The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby And The Range

by Robert Mishou

The Way It Is (#1)

Sometimes a band’s first single becomes not only their breakthrough smash hit, but also their most memorable song. In the 1986 concert, this was the opening song (it was just released as a single and had not yet received a ton of airplay) and I knew, from that amazing piano intro, that I was in for something special. While there are some great piano/keyboard intros in the ‘80s, this might be the best. Add to this that this may also be one of the best written songs of the ‘80s – yes, we have a classic here. I typically like a song that has some social conscious to it without beating the listener over the head. We all know that there are those who struggle in our country and, unfortunately they struggle for different reason, not all of them fair. Hornsby jumps right into this situation:

Standing in line, marking time
Waiting for the Welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
Man in a silk suit hurries by
As he catches a poor old lady’s eye
Just for fun he says, “Get a job”

What a start! The tone is set and we can see what direction the lyrics are going to take us. Now, jump to the last verse:

Well, they passed a law in ‘64
To give those who ain’t got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don’t change another’s mind
When all they see at hiring time
Is the line on the color bar

Wow! Lyrics that hit deep into the heart of American society – I love it! There is no need to agree with Hornsby, but I admire the way he pushes us to think. Just because things have always been a certain way, does not mean they have to remain. “That’s just the way it is” is being used with sincere verbal irony; the sarcasm of this line is at the heart of this song and should resonate with the listener way after it is finished. Note: do not miss the excellent piano solo. Note 2: I tried to show my appreciation for this song in a college fiction writing class by writing a short story based on it – the results were awful and yes, the text has been destroyed.

Down the Road Tonight

It is not easy to discuss prostitution delicately, but Hornsby has done it here. We are back to a rural setting and a young man who is discovering the ways of the world. He has gone and fallen in love with a woman who wants him to “just keep coming back” – for reasons he does not yet understand. They meet in a “local roadside shack” a “poor man’s Paris with a parking lot in the back.” He has clearly fallen for her and she insists that, “. . . don’t tell me she don’t love me / The money’s just a mere formality.” Ah-ha. Hornsby has successfully captured the duality of human nature and the constant struggle of innocence versus experience (William Blake would be proud). My heart goes out to this young man who has yet to discover the truth about the woman he loves.

Wild Frontier

This song rocks a bit more than some of the others on this album. There are more contrasts in this song – not innocence and experience, but calm rural life compared to the fast life of stardom. As the speaker gains success, he moves to where the action is and away from where he was raised. The new world is foreign to him and he does not want to change and fit into this new place. This song has one of my favorite verses on the album:

Electric sun
Electric hair
Leather skin
Leather underwear
She said, “Hey
I’m getting in the biz
Come on over
I’ll show you where some action is”

The chorus shows how he unashamedly refuses to give in and change his lifestyle or beliefs. In fact, he wants to leave, “Take me all the way back to the wild frontier.” He is going back to where it is “safe to roam.”

The River Runs Low

Considering writing only – this is my second favorite song on the album. This sparse song packs a punch – just a man with a piano, an accordion to fill the gaps, and lyrics that fit together perfectly. Hornsby uses a literary technique called pathetic fallacy – using inanimate objects (nature here) to show human emotion. In this song, the land is suffering from a drought, “Rain held back again / Haven’t felt a drop since you went away.” As the town suffers from a lack of rain, he suffers by not being with his love. The rest of the first verse displays what I love about the songwriting – it sets a clear scene and still connects to the speaker’s emotions:

Outside of town the hills are brown
I guess way out there you’d call them golden
Lines outside the welfare store
The clock is stopped at the bank next door
They yelled like hell when the boys left home
Now, just like you, they’re all gone

Great stuff! Hornsby carries the connection between nature and emotions through the heartfelt chorus:

The river runs low tonight
Eyes are closed on the waterline
The river runs low tonight
And you’re always drifting through my mind
The river runs low tonight
And nobody waits for the tide to rise
But I’m gonna wait til you make the river run high

I can never listen to this song just once. The layers just keep coming out in the music and the lyrics. To me, this is one of the high points of the album.

The Red Plains

The final track on The Way It Is is a story song. The story begins as a calm one, “Four walls I built one winter / She came to share my name / For years we lived as lovers on the open plains.” Now, as with most tales, there is no real story unless there is conflict. Here the conflict comes from a wildfire that is spreading across the dry, grassy plains. Musically, the conflict is heightened by a strong, driving rhythm guitar. The couple is clearly in love and he has tried to make her happy, “I gave her clothes and a diamond / She loved the things that shined.” Now, though survival is on question, Fire, smoked filled rooms / I hope I’ll be standing when the day is through.” Into every ideal life danger comes and sometime a realization also comes; in this song the speaker realizes that there are some things that may be more important than possessions, “But one day the gold and silver gets left behind.” This song is a great way to end an excellent debut album. This, like all of the other songs on this album, were co-written with Bruce’s brother Jonathan Hornsby.

There you have it – ten songs from one of the best debut albums released in the ‘80s. Bruce Hornsby and the Range would remain relevant with the release of their next two albums, Scenes from the Southside and Night on the Town. Each album had some successful singles, but would not achieve the success of The Way It Is. If, for some strange reason, you have not listened to The Way It Is closely, take the time and do it now. Bruce Hornsby will continue to produce quality music, but this album is one that every fan of the ‘80s NEEDS to be familiar with. I hope you enjoyed this and feel the need to revisit this excellent musician and songwriter. If this is your first listen to this excellent, talented musician, then don’t stop – keep listening!

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