Once dubbed ‘the future of rock ‘n’ roll’, Bruce Springsteen has since become, in his own words, “the hardest working white man in show business”, with mammoth, exhilarating four-hour concerts a staple of his touring career. But Springsteen, for an artist with a forty year body of work, also sports a strikingly consistent discography. In fact he has arguably one of the strongest album-runs of any artist, arguably going eight albums from 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J to 1987’s Tunnel of Love without a misstep.
Against a backdrop of riotous and pompous rock, Bruce stood out as the underdog; voice for of the all-American common man. His characters live seemingly insignificant lives, idolised and humanised through his lyrics’ cinematic gaze. His commitment to the American underclass has cemented him as something of a working class hero for music fans worldwide. Diners, highway intersections, fairgrounds, all became settings for The Boss’ street epics.
Navigating these streets can be a monolithic task. IMPACT is here to guide you round the highways and backstreets of New Jersey.
Springsteen was quick to dispense with the sort of cock-rock soloing that had taken over rock music in the mid-seventies and nowhere was this better exhibited than on the iconic Born to Run, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. A taut epic with eight songs of liberation both thematic and literal, it transformed all the band had done prior into major-key jubilance. It’s an album which captures the short lived freedom of youth, of your first car, your first girlfriend, of leaving your roots behind. As Bruce says on the title track “it’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of here.” On songs like the epic ten minute closer ‘Jungleland’ every band member gets a chance to shine, especially recently passed saxophonist Clarence Clemons: camaraderie is the key with these fellas.
But it’s not all joy. Follow-up Darkness on the Edge of Town (often fans’ choice pick) was the result of three years of legal wrangles; the tone is grim and angry, the band fighting against becoming business over pleasure. While lyrically bleak though, the music is unabashedly alive: raging against the fears and insecurities of everyday American life. Having fled the constricting street lights of home on Born to Run, Bruce found struggle and hardship hard to outrun. These were universal problems channelled through intensely personal experience. It also features probably the most solo-y guitar solo of Springsteen’s oeuvre on ‘Candy’s Room’, a song about visiting a prostitute with both hoping to find a cure for their lingering loneliness. On ‘Racing in the Street’ he says his girl “stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.” ‘She’s the One’ this ain’t.
Of course the most iconic release of Bruce’s career is Born in the U.S.A. Despite the sheen (and synths!), this is a bitterly serious album. Tales of camaraderie and love (‘No Surrender’, ‘Bobby Jean’) are juxtaposed with musings on aging and protest songs (‘Glory Days’, the title track). While the band was a long way from those New Jersey bars – it jostled for number one on the US charts with Prince and Madonna – if you can get past that reputation it’s probably the easiest place to start.
Alternatively there’s 2007’s Magic (aka Born in the U.S.A. Part 2). 23 years later, much had changed. The E Street Band had gone been disbanded for over a decade, and the America they had come to personify had long gone. It was time for updated dispatches from the American heartland, and Magic was that in spades. Literally so at some points, as ‘Gypsy Biker’ is a spiritual sequel to ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ A breezy late-career victory lap, Magic ditches the heartland rock of Springsteen’s early work but keeps the music thoroughly alive.
I’m On Fire
One oft-repeated anecdote which exemplifies how integral Springsteen is to the modern image of ‘America’ saw Bruce approached by a stranger shortly after 9/11 and told “you need to come back, we need you now”. His next album, The Rising, drew from his status as an American icon to comment and reflect on the current state of the nation. But while most post-9/11 music was chest-thumping jingoism, this album earned longevity through a more sensitive approach, combining ‘We Shall Overcome’ inner strength with a compassionate urge for understanding (‘Worlds Apart’ best represents this, even featuring Qawwali singers).
While never previously to such a universal degree, this kind of dare-I-say-it experimentalism has shown up plenty in Springsteen’s early works; Sophomore LP The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle is probably the closest one could get to indulgent, yet here it’s a compliment. Elements of funk and jazz are spread across the album’s seven long cuts, aptly reflecting the multicultural nature of where it was recorded – the New York melding pot. Containing one of the strongest second sides of any record, the album’s opulence has never been topped by Bruce and company (even on double album The River).
But proving to be a jack of all trades (and a master of most), Springsteen did ditch the bombast to great success, paring back his sound till he was alone in his room with just a guitar, harmonica and four-track Portastudio. The resulting album, Nebraska, was so bleak and mournful it made Darkness sound like ‘Walking on Sunshine’, and it remains one of the bravest moves by a major musician in any genre. Final cut ‘Reason To Believe’ is one of his most despairing and intriguing songs; to this day it’s impossible to tell whether the characters within it who soldier on day after day in the face of complete hopelessness is a teary-eyed testament to the resilience of human spirit, or a sneering comment on their futile perseverance.
The further into Springsteen’s discography one travels, the more multifaceted he seems to become. The loops and Irish-tinged Wrecking Ball (finding Angry Bruce raging against the economic machine with help from Tom Morello), the Dylan-esque troubadour of Greetings from Asbury Park N.J., the American folk band of We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions, all deserve exploring.
Also of interest is The Promise, a two disc collection of outtakes from the Darkness sessions. It shows just how prolific and solid Bruce was during this period, while also finding a home for his takes on ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Fire’ (originally gifted to Patti Smith and the Pointer Sisters) as well as a more forceful and emotive version of ‘Racing in the Street’.
All of this has really only highlighted one side of Bruce and the Band. His live shows might have an even greater reputation than his studio albums, and while none of his live albums really show the exuberance of the real thing, they’re still pretty special. The Live 1975-85 box set and Live in New York illustrate neatly how the band’s power has dissipated none in the three decades between their respective recordings. The Brixton Night bootleg is worth a listen too, exhibiting a quieter side to the live persona, as Springsteen alone humbly commandeers an audience’s attention for three and a half hours with charm, wit and some interesting reinterpretations of his work.
Lost in the Flood
Never really truly terrible, Bruce still makes the occasional misstep. The follow-ups to Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town (released on the same day in 1992), while being admirable additions to a lesser artist’s canon, would probably have been better served as a judiciously edited single album. His latest effort High Hopes (the first sans a key member of the E Street Band, saxophonist Clarence Clemons who died in 2011) is an inconsistent curio, a hodgepodge of originals and re-recordings better represented elsewhere. Still, the fact it’s one of Springsteen’s worst albums and is still impossible to completely write-off says a lot for his work entire and the man himself, who at 65 continues to add great value to American rock.
Tom Watchorn and Liam Inscoe-Jones
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.