Bruce Springsteen is a peerless songwriter and consummate artist whose every painstakingly crafted album serves as an impassioned and literate pulse taking of a generation’s fortunes. He is the foremost live performer in the history of rock & roll, a self-described prisoner of the music he loves, for whom every show is played as if it might be his last. Though some may argue the point, Springsteen single-handedly rescued rock & roll from its banal post-’60s doldrums. Moreover, his music developed a conscience that didn’t ignore the darkening of the runaway American dream as the country greedily blundered its way through the ’80s.
With the mighty exception of Born in the U.S.A., however — a veritable greatest-hits album in itself — Springsteen’s standing as a singles artist has seemed an incidental byproduct of his main focus: arraying his songs in theme-driven album-length statements. For this reason, Greatest Hits comes across as a collection of familiar songs, each stellar in its own right, that somehow adds up to something less than the sum of its parts — even with the grafted-on bonus of four new tracks recorded with the E Street Band.
First of all, this album is not even what it purports to be. A straightforward program of Springsteen’s greatest hits would at least have had the virtue of a governing logic. Although some Bruce-smitten critic blessed with second sight will no doubt divine a wishful thesis about the “story” it tells, the simple fact is that Greatest Hits liberally violates its stated premise. Absent for reasons unfathomable are five Top 10 hits (“Cover Me,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “I’m on Fire,” “War” and “Tunnel of Love”), as well as such essential charting singles as “Prove It All Night” (No. 33), “Fade Away” (No. 20) and “One Step Up” (No. 13). Also missing is anything preceding “Born to Run,” which leaves out a big chunk of the Springsteen story. If the album’s assemblers could find reason to include “Atlantic City,” which failed to crack the Top 100, surely there was room for “Blinded by the Light” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” Those, too, rank among his greatest hits — ask anyone partial to FM radio or Springsteen concerts — despite the lack of corroboration from the charts.
In the early years of his career, a whole new palette of possibilities emerged from Springsteen’s energetic vision — a playful, swinging landscape in which Bob Dylan met Roy Orbison at the Jersey Shore to a soundtrack produced by Phil Spector. All of that seemed to sour after Born to Run as Springsteen simultaneously fought a bruising legal battle with a former manager and tasted superstardom freighted with its share of hype. Thereafter, he began taking ever more penetrating and disillusioned looks into the troubled American psyche. His melancholy songs were often so intimate and personal (witness Nebraska) that the E Street Band eventually seemed an encumbrance, though he puffed out his chest for tours with them after the releases of Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love. In hindsight, Greatest Hits documents Springsteen’s discomfort with the spotlight, the diminishing role of the E Street Band in his music and his rueful view of lives disintegrating against a backdrop of red, white and blues. After a certain point, he didn’t want to be the Boss anymore.
By lining up a batch of Springsteen’s biggest radio tracks, Greatest Hits unintentionally reveals a creaky, leaden quality that occasionally crept into the music he made in the post-Born to Run era. Plucked out of context, such popular hits as “Hungry Heart” and “Born in the U.S.A.” sound stiff and muscle-bound now. The former is weighted by awkward lyrics (“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack”) that sentimentalize abandonment, the latter grinds a ponderous riff into the ground, and both are stamped with a metronomic snare sound that’s leagues removed from the natural swing of the band circa The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. The notion occurs that “Better Days,” featuring one of Springsteen’s most thoughtful lyrics, would have benefited from a subtler vocal treatment than the histrionic growl sustained throughout. And spanning 20 years, isolated from the albums that gave them meaning, these songs don’t mix particularly well, nor do they portray a remarkable career in a flattering or accurate light. Every album Springsteen has made is best heard in toto; this vivisection is largely for dilettantes, come-latelies and radio programmers who wouldn’t delve deeply anyway.
As for the four unreleased songs — three of them newly recorded with the E Street Band for this project — they sound more like a final coda than a new beginning. Two of them, “Secret Garden” and “Blood Brothers,” are so restrained that the E Streeters’ involvement adds nothing that session musicians couldn’t have provided just as well with their competent anonymity. On “Blood Brothers,” a barely electrified folk tune that recalls Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Springsteen’s harmonica is featured far more prominently than Clarence Clemons’ sax or Nils Lofgren’s guitar. The uptempo songs — “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land” — don’t restore or redefine the band members’ roles in any way that suggests they have a future together. “Murder Incorporated” (originally recorded in 1982 and remixed for this album) is broad and bombastic enough to be a hit, while “This Hard Land” repeats some of Springsteen’s most pronounced tics — the use of rivers, seeds and rides as metaphors, the contrived device of addressing his words to some fictional “sir.” Musically it begs comparison with Woody Guthrie’s populist folk songs.
This may, in fact, be where Springsteen is headed. It wouldn’t be surprising if, on his next travels, he walked alone with a guitar and harmonica for companions.