Springsteen explained to the Observer Music Monthly January 2009 about this fable concerning a character who can't escape his past: "The past is never the past. It is always present. And you better reckon with it in your life and in your daily experience, or it will get you. It will get you really bad. It will come and it will devour you, it will remove you from the present. It will steal your future and this happens every day.
We've lived through a nightmare like that in the past eight years here. We had a historically blind administration who didn't take consideration of the past; thousands and thousands of people died, lives were ruined and terrible, terrible things occurred because, there was no sense of history, no sense that the past is living and real.
So the song is about this happening to this character. He moves ahead. He tries to make the right moves. He awakes from a vision of his death, and realizes: life is finite. Time is with me always. And I'm frightened. And he rides west where he settles down. But the past comes back in the form of this bounty hunter, whose mind is also quickened and burdened by the need to get his man. And these possessed creatures meet along the shores of this river where the bounty hunter of course is killed, and his last words are: 'We can't undo the things we've done.'
In other words, your past is your past. You carry it with you always. These are your sins. You carry them with you always. You better learn how to live with them, learn the story that they're telling you. Because they're whispering your future in your ear, and if you don't listen, it will be contaminated by the toxicity of your past."