The Hudson Guide to Bruce Springsteen

From December, 2005 Edition or Prime:

No artist suffers from generational discrimination as “The Boss”. Most people who have come of age since the mid-80’s hysteria surrounding the Born In the U.S.A. album know him as the over-saturated old dude with the awful videos. Was he more legitimate than John “Cougar” Mellencamp, or was he a record company creation?
For those who came of age before MTV, Springsteen really is a blue collar hero; a man who for the first half of his career was known more for his marathon concerts than his albums.
Yet Springsteen really seems to be the real deal. Even though he’s been a multi-millionaire for close to twenty years, he still can be seen shopping, driving, or checking out bands at clubs near his New Jersey home. He generously (and quietly) gives to many charities without the press conferences or photo ops that plague today’s celebrity culture.
And he’s still the hardest working man in showbiz. While his concerts no longer come close to breaking the four-hour mark, this guy in his mid-50’s still performs for close to three hours and peppers his sets with enough rarities and one-offs to please even the most jaded fan.
Springsteen’s catalog is also more consistent than the majority of his superstar brethren. With the exception of two albums simultaneously released in the early 90’s, he’s never put out a truly awful record. At least three albums gracefully sit next to any other landmark albums by any artist. Here’s the Prime guide to navigating the Bruce Springsteen catalog.

Essential
Born To Run

It may have been the lowest moment of his life. His first two albums had bombed, leading most of the executives at Columbia Records to push towards dropping him. He barely had enough money to pay his band; even in the middle of recording they would have to hit the road for cash to survive.
Even worse, sessions for his third album were not proceeding well. It took six months to create a worthwhile take of “Born To Run”. Few other tunes were beyond initial tracking.
Yet somehow Bruce Springsteen pulled it all together, and created the album of his life. The son of a Columbia Records executive saved him from being dropped by dragging his father to one of his now-legendary shows of that era. New and old friends were brought into the studio. One was his lifelong buddy, “Miami” (now “Little”) Steven Vandt; the other was Rolling Stone critic (now manager) Jon Landau. Together, they understood what Springsteen was attempting and managed to convey his ideas to a previously befuddled group of musicians and studio personnel.
Springsteen’s goal was grandiose even for that era of long-winded concept albums – a rock ‘n’ roll version of West Side Story, with a sound described by Rolling Stone as “big as Phil Spector and as much kick as early Elvis”. The concept may have disappeared somewhere during the recording process, but the theatrical nature of tracks such as “Thunder Road”, “Meeting Across the River”, and “Jungleland” brought characters such as Terry, Mary, and the Magic Rat to life.
Of course, there’s also “Born to Run”. A monster of an epic track, layered with guitars, lust, sax, drums, drama, more guitars, more lust, glockenspiel, and the greatest “1, 2, 3, 4” count-out in rock history (at least until the Ramones turned it into their trademark phrase). If Springsteen had never recorded another song, this was the track that will inevitably make insipid music lists throughout the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite the accomplishment of this album, however, Columbia Records has not treated it with the respect it deserved. It was released as an awful sounding compact disc in the beginning years of the format, and while almost every other artist on the label has seen their catalog remastered, this same poor pressing sat in the racks for 20 years.
Finally, on November 15, Columbia righted their wrongs with the Born To Run 30th Anniversary edition. Finally, each of the layers of guitars and other instruments on the title track can be heard. The same can be said of the entire album; it now sounds like a contemporary release.
As if that’s not enough, Columbia has also included two DVD’s. The first, Wings For Wheels, is a ninety-minute documentary of the making of the album and besides interviews with the majority of those present for the recording there’s plenty of previously unseen footage of the recording sessions. But it’s the second DVD that will make the fanatics go crazy – a recently discovered two hour concert recorded at London’s Hammmersmith Odeon shortly after the album was released in 1975. Besides the majority of the Born to Run album, Springsteen and the newly-constituted E Street Band storm through highlights of their first two albums and their infamous “Detroit Medley” of Mitch Ryder covers.

The River

No album showcases the multiple sides of Springsteen as The River, a sprawling double album that saw silly three-chord garage tunes stand up proudly next to lengthy Born To Run-ish epics. In Point Blank, Christopher Sandford described the album as “(balancing) the joyous derangement of Born (To Run) against the black heart of Darkness (On the Edge of Town)”.
“Hungry Heart”, “Cadillac Ranch”, and “Sherry Darling” may have been the crowd pleasers, but every track is an essential part of Springsteen’s catalog of tunes. “The River” was a sequel of sorts to “Thunder Road” that found the protagonist forced into marriage and dead end jobs. Similar characters face these same sorts of problems in “The Price You Pay”, “Wreck On the Highway”, and “Point Blank”.
These dismal themes were interspersed with the reckless abandon of “Two Hearts”, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”, “Out in the Street”. The message seemed to be that there’s moments of glee in even the most despairing times; a theme that resonates in Springsteen’s music to this day.

Nebraska

Let’s say that after almost a decade of hard work, you finally crack the big time with a multi-million selling album. What would you do next? Most artists would just repeat that formula to pad their bank account.
Instead, Springsteen released an album of home demos that he reportedly carried around in his back pocket for a few weeks. What was he thinking?
In some respects, it was a brilliant accident. Writing songs for the follow-up to The River, Springsteen recorded a dozen or so tracks on a four-track cassette deck that he planned to play for the band. Not pleased with the full-band recording sessions of this material, Springsteen decided to just release the demos, warts and all.
It’s easy to see why these songs didn’t work in a band setting. Songs such as “Mansion on the Hill” and “My Father’s House” were too stark for anything but an acoustic setting. Instead of Roy Orbison, Mitch Ryder, and Bo Diddley, his influences were now Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. Taken as a whole, the album’s bleak lyrics were a reflection of the dark side of Reagan’s America. Yet, somehow, it worked.

The Overlooked Blockbuster
Born in the U.S.A.

Any album that dominated the airwaves as this album did in the mid-80’s is due for backlash. Seven top-10 singles, almost 20 million copies sold around the world, and a world tour that seemed to last forever struck a negative chord with many fair weather fans.
To be fair, there are legitimate reasons to dislike this album. “Cover Me” may be his weakest song up to that point; the silly “Glory Days” is not as charming as similar-themed songs on The River. Twenty years later, the overuse of synthesizers and processed snares certainly sounds dated, and the videos that saturated MTV certainly proved that Springsteen had no future as an actor.
Yet this album also produced some of his greatest tracks, particularly on the second half of the disc. “No Surrender”, “Bobby Jean”, “I’m Going Down”, even “Dancing In the Dark” (despite that awful video featuring a pre-Friends Courtney Cox) were simply great pop songs, as were side one’s “Downbound Train” and “Darlington County”. And while the title track was certainly misunderstood by more than a few politicians, it’s one of the band’s greatest studio performances.

Great
Tunnel of Love

After the craziness of Born In the U.S.A., Springsteen wanted to slow things down a bit. He had also recently married, and the mostly acoustic Tunnel of Love dealt with the good, bad, and ugly of this relationship. For the first (and last) time, the lyrics appeared to be autobiographical, which obviously resulted in the most honest album of his career.

The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle

First the negatives. The production is awful, and Springsteen was still attempting to fill each song with every multi-syllable word he knew. Yet one can’t deny the ferocity of his musicians or the passion of his performance. As for the songs, the Rolling Stone Record Guide says it best – “Springsteen’s themes of loyalty, courage, the sheer joy of rock ‘n’ roll, and the aching need to live up to the future’s promise, get their first full treatment”.

Darkness On the Edge of Town

This is the album where Bruce Springsteen became an adult. While no individual songs are lyrically as powerful as the highlights of its’ predecessor, Born To Run, the now fully-integrated E Street Band is much more powerful and Springsteen’s guitar playing has never been as biting. Lyrically, this album found Springsteen finding his footing as a working class hero, singing songs about dead-end jobs, dead-end people, and dead-end cities. This is the album that should be remastered next.

Good
Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ

Springsteen was signed to Columbia Records as a solo act. As one may imagine, the label was surprised when he showed up at the recording studio with a full band. The resulting album has plenty of faults – rhythmically-challenged backing tracks, a muddy mix, and an overwrought vocal performance by Springsteen. Yet songs such as “For You”, “Growin’ Up”, and “Spirit In the Night” rank as some of his greatest tunes.

The Rising

Like most Americans, the events of 9/11 shook Springsteen to his core. He quickly wrote an album of material, and for the first time in fifteen years brought the E Street Band into the studio. The resulting album certainly has it’s moments (particularly the title track, “Empty Sky”, and “My City of Ruins”, but at times the passion seems a bit forced…and more than a couple of songs should have been stricken from the overlong album.

Devils and Dust

Billed as a sequel to Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen’s latest album features tunes primarily written almost a decade earlier. Discovering that this batch of tracks perfectly fits the current political atmosphere, he called in producer Brendan O’Brien to add additional instrumentation. Just as he did on Nebraska, Springsteen goes into character for these songs that deal with the disenfranchised – hookers, boxers, migrant workers, soldiers, etc. While no tracks stand out as certified classics, the overall feel and pace of this album does resonate when taken as a whole.

Avoid!
Lucky Town/Human Touch

After dismissing the E Street Band (with a rumored million dollar severance check), Springsteen headed into the studio with a bunch of studio pros and came out with two albums of pure dreck that were released on the same day. Many have claimed that one could create a good album by combining the highlights of these albums, but a closer inspection finds that one would be hard pressed to produce an EP.

Live Albums
To truly understand the power of Springsteen, one needs to hear his live performances. Unfortunately, no official release has truly captured the intensity of his shows. There are seemingly a million live bootlegs floating around the internet that are dying to be released, particularly from his groundbreaking 1978 tour.
Not that there aren’t worthy official releases. 1975-1985 gathers tracks from a ton of shows, but there is no rhyme or reason for the order in which they’re presented.
MTV Plugged is the audio from an early 90’s television appearance that showcased tracks from Lucky Town and Human Touch. Not only is the recording plagued by awful songs from these albums, his band at the time had no fire.
Live in New York City fares a bit better. The soundtrack to an HBO concert film that celebrated his 2000 reunion with the E Street Band, the main portion of the disc does flow like a true live performance. Unfortunately, six tracks were tacked on to the end of the second disc that were completely out of context.

Complilations
The holy grail of compilations is certainly Tracks, a multi-disc set of unreleased songs and B-sides. Considering that Springsteen typically records many more tunes than he releases on any album (and even band members complain that he often chooses the wrong songs), this box set ranks higher than many of his “regular” releases. For those not willing to fork out the dough for a four-disc box, highlights from the set (along with three more outtakes) were released the following years as 18 Tracks.
As for true greatest hits compilations, fans have complained for years about the two that are currently on the market. Greatest Hits features nothing from his first two albums, and relies too heavily on Born in the U.S.A. and beyond. Four strong previously unreleased songs sort of save the day, though.
The Essential Bruce Springsteen should have been stronger as it’s a double disc set. But giving as much space to tracks from The Rising and Human Touch as superior albums such as Darkness On the Edge of Town and The River is a glaring problem.

Comments

Todd Epp said…
Scott--
Outstanding review. I'd put "The Rising" in his top tier work though. U da Man on da Boss!
Todd
Corey V. said…
Hooray for the BOSS!

P.S. -- you forgot to mention Born to Run as one of the best kareoke songs ever written.
mhs said…
One of my fondest memories is of dancing to "Cadillac Ranch" in the middle of Dodge Street traffic in Omaha in the early spring of 1982.

One of my worst was staying home from a trip the previous September when the same guys, less me, left from a Tom Petty concert at the old Omaha Civic Center and drove all night to catch Bruce the next night . . . at Red Rocks.

dumb, dumb, dumb.

"Darkness" is my list topper, the stark tone and nearly agonizied, mournful guitar still takes my breath away.

I've been to 7 shows but am still 0 for Jungleland. C'mon Boss, can't you play my favorite at just one show that I'm at?

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