Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (Columbia, 1973)
The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (Columbia, 1973)
Born to Run (Columbia, 1975)
Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia, 1978)
The River (Columbia, 1980)
Nebraska (Columbia, 1982)
Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1984)
Live 1975–85 (Columbia, 1986)
Tunnel of Love (Columbia, 1987)
Chimes of Freedom (Columbia, 1988)
Human Touch (Columbia, 1992)
Lucky Town (Columbia, 1992)
In Concert: MTV Plugged (Columbia, 1993)
The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia, 1995)
Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1995 Tracks (Columbia, 1998)
18 Tracks (Columbia, 1999)
Live in New York City (Columbia, 2001)
The Rising (Columbia, 2002)
The Essential Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 2003)
Devils and Dust (Columbia, 2005)
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia, 2006)
Magic (Columbia, 2007)
Live in Dublin (Columbia, 2007)
Workin' on a Dream (Columbia, 2009)
One question: are they waiting until Springsteen dies before they name a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop after him? Is that the rule? Or can they go right ahead? And can they save another one for Clarence? Really—what has Vince Lombardi or Woodrow Wilson done for Jersey lately, anyhow? Well, the powers that be can stall if they want, but Bruce Springsteen has already earned his legend as the Garden State's poet laureate, and despite the fact that his mythic stature rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and for perfectly good reasons, the Boss di tutti Bosses remains a one-of-a-kind rock star. He's one of the few male rockers of any generation who sings about women without turning into a pushy little creep. He has never passed out into a toilet, or worn a mullet, or bought a castle, or announced his tantric sex prowess. His live shows are still the stuff of legend. He was smart enough to hire Max Weinberg as his drummer. Bon Jovi wasn't really his fault. Oh, and he rocks.
The young Springsteen made his entrance as a scruffy acoustic Dylan clone on Greetings from Asbury Park. It's rhythmically sludgy, vocally overwrought, but there's still a spark in songs like "For You." True, at the end of the song he sings, "Who am I to ask you to lick my sores"—but hey, he was learning. Still young, still eager to please, still reluctant to shave, Bruce scored his first triumph with The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, with ridiculous car/girl mythos and jazzy rhythms and horns and guitars all over the place. The highlight: "Rosalita," a pile-driving eight-minute anthem roaring up from deep in the swamps of Jersey, celebrating the ultimate us-against-the-world teen romance.
For Born To Run, Springsteen got the E Street Band to stomp all over some jaw-droppingly great songs, ascending into a Zen realm of pure carness and girlness. He also obviously watched De Niro in Mean Streets about a hundred times. The result was his breakthrough hit. "Born to Run" was all drama and lust and sax and drums and glockenspiels and one of the great "1-2-3-4!" screams in rock history. "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" sat back right easy and laughed, while "Jungleland" was a fabulously overblown epic about a rumble under an Exxon sign, starring the Magic Rat, his sleek machine, and a supporting cast of Jersey boys and their automotive enchantresses. Some of us are still trying to figure out the plot to this one. (Does the Rat crash in the tunnels uptown' Or does the girl turn him in to the cops' Suggestions, please.)
Darkness at the Edge of the Town was grim, bitter, adult. Springsteen added more bite to the music, and more everyday detail to the lyrics, even noting the right kind of engine heads to put in a '69 Chevy. He also obviously watched Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon about a hundred times. His working class heroes hang tough in "Prove It All Night," "Candy's Room," and "The Promised Land," where the dogs on Main Street howl for the soul of a small-town kid in the Utah desert. And "Racing in the Streets" is still perhaps the best Springsteen song ever. The River was a more erratic double-vinyl set, divided between long slow ones with plots and short catchy throwaways. The throwaways are the ones you remember, especially the joyous "Out in the Street" and the morbid "Cadillac Ranch." But the real stunner is the long slow title song. If you love "The River," you should rent the concert flick No Nukes and fast-forward to the scene where Springsteen sings it for a crowd who have never heard it before, but who are singing along by the second chorus. Good question: "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true? Or is it something worse?"
Nebraska, which he recorded at home on a four-track tape machine, and carried around as a cassette in his pocket for two weeks before realizing he wanted to release it, is a bleak, unforgiving acoustic portrait of the dark side of Reagan's America. Releasing these stark demos should have meant commercial disaster, but Nebraska struck a nerve with the audience and became a surprise hit. Despite the slow pace, the sheer sonic punch of the thing is still shocking, especially "State Trooper," one of the scariest songs ever recorded. No happy endings, just the terrifying menace of "Nebraska," "Highway Patrolman," and "Atlantic City," the tale of a man driven to the edge by debts that no honest person could pay. The Notorious B.I.G. would have understood.
With Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen took the stripped-down songcraft of Nebraska back to his band. He also obviously stopped going to the movies so much, and started spending more time in the gym. The result: Born in the U.S.A. blew up like the Chicken Man, pushing Bruce to the level of fame reserved for Jesus, Elvis, and Cher. Even at the time, the synthesizers sounded dated and cheesy, but that didn't keep anyone from hearing how great the songs were, especially given Springsteen's most passionate singing. "I'm Goin' Down," "I'm On Fire," and "Bobby Jean" are desolate yet catchy; "Downbound Train" steals a melody from Jethro freakin' Tull and turns it into country blues. "Born in the U.S.A." is a long nightmare of American betrayals from Vietnam to Reagan, driven by punk rock screams and Max Weinberg's even angrier drums. The song gets more intense the longer it builds, with Springsteen's howl giving way to a furious instrumental outro, kicking back in for one last chorus just so Max and the band can beat up on the riff a little more.
But fame was clearly taking its toll on a rock star who tried so hard to cultivate his regular-guy cred. His response was Tunnel of Love, a low-key, mostly acoustic meditation on his marriage, exploring good love ("All That Heaven Will Allow"), bad love ("Two Faces"), and the detours in between ("Cautious Man"). Even if the marriage didn't last, the music does; ballads like "One Step Up" and "Walk Like a Man" are alive with hurt and wit and Catholic angst. Unfortunately, it was the last shot of Springsteen's amazing Eighties run. He basically dropped out, dissolved the band, and retired to L.A., of all places.
After a five-year layoff, he tried to get a solo career going, but without his rhythm section, he was just another klutzy singer-songwriter, his audience split down the middle by Garth Brooks on the right and Eddie Vedder on the left. (Indeed, two of his E Street comrades, Max Weinberg and Steve Van Zandt, became TV stars and enjoyed better solo success in the Nineties than the Boss did.) He simultaneously released two heavily hyped comeback albums, Human Touch and Lucky Touch, but the songs were lugubrious and out-of-focus, overplayed by the hack L.A. studio band, and his fans didn't bite. The Ghost of Tom Joad was a self-conscious attempt to remake Nebraska, this time with a real studio, and preachier lyrics—but the songs just weren't nearly as strong.
The Rising was rightly hailed as Springsteen's best since Tunnel of Love, an E Street reunion inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks. The music was revitalized, especially the title track and album opener "Lonesome Day." What nobody realized is that it was just the beginning of the man's most prolific hot spell ever: Who would have guessed this notoriously picky studio craftsman would release five studio albums in seven years? Devils and Dust continued in the style of Nebraska and Tom Joad, going back to the role of acoustic folkie for quiet yet troubled songs about fatherhood ("Long Time Comin'"), grief ("Reno") and war ("Devils and Dust"). We Shall Overcome was a joyously ragged bag of old folk songs, bashed out with real spirit and verve in a tribute to the "American Land." (Springsteen takes on the same songs with the same band on Live in Dublin.) Working on a Dream was a surprisingly light and upbeat pop album highlighted by the Beatles-style guitar chimes of "My Lucky Day" and the over-the-top cowboy melodrama "Outlaw Pete."
Magic was the classic he'd been building up to since The Rising, going for the tough, grimly detailed style of Nebraska and Darkness. Springsteen had sung about some of these characters before: the Vietnam vet of "Born in the U.S.A." gets a bonfire funeral in "Gypsy Biker," and the New Jersey Turnpike loner of "State Trooper" seems to show up in "Radio Nowhere," still asking his car radio the same question: "Is there anybody alive out there?" The big themes are marriage and America, as well as the constant repair they demand—yet both Springsteen and the E Street Band sound fully up to the challenge.
Springsteen's first archival retrospective came in 1986 with the five-record Live box, which had massive production numbers, "This Land is Your Land," Edwin Starr's "War," and too many Born in the U.S.A. remakes. But the Nebraska tunes were revelatory—especially "Reason to Believe," which became a blasphemous country-gospel hoedown that blew the studio version away. Chimes of Freedom was a weak 1988 live EP; MTV Plugged was a little-watched MTV gig that failed to shore up the sagging sales of Human Touch and Lucky Town. Tracks was a generous if belated four-CD box of rare and unreleased tunes, most notably "Shut Out The Light," originally the B-side of the "Born in the U.S.A." single; it's the same Vietnam vet singing, but the guitars are acoustic and the pain is brand new. 18 Tracks was a rip forcing fans to pay twenty bucks for three songs foolishly left off Tracks. Live in New York City documented the E Street Band's 2000 reunion tour. The Hammersmith Odeon London '75 CD/DVD is (incredibly) the first time Springsteen has released one of his legendary Seventies gigs in full; hopefully there'll be more where that came from.
As for Greatest Hits, it's an argument starter for sure. There are brave choices ("Atlantic City," "The River"), but the final third is all filler; none of the new songs were ever called a hit again, and just because his theme for the movie Philadelphia won an Oscar doesn't make it suck any less. The two-disc Essential Bruce Springsteen is more complete and less haphazardly selected. But either collection is a good place to hear why Bruce remains a legend, particularly when you get to that moment in "Thunder Road" when he sings "from your front porch to my front seat." Consider how easy it would have been for him to sing "my back seat." Easier, in fact—catchier, more crowd-pleasing, more poetic in a way, more pandering definitely. He just had something else to say. If you're one of those people who has trouble understanding why Springsteen still inspires such fervor in his fans, it's all there in that moment.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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