Bruce Springsteen

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss. Except Older.

Strongest album: Born in the U.S.A.
Must to avoid: Human Touch

During the dark doldrums of the mid-70s, when rock'n'roll had hit an all-time low, a man from New Jersey put out some good music. Critics, who were desperate for anything halfway decent to listen to, practically drooled all over Springsteen and his East Street Band as a performer of godlike proportions. Within a decade he'd become a superstar with record sales to match his critical raves, a rare occurrence indeed. So due to the time he first made his appearance - an era in which Kiss was the world's biggest rock band - he's slightly overrated. If he'd emerged a few years later in the middle of the punk explosion, he wouldn't have had nearly the same impact; but he happened to come along at a time when, much like the early '60s or the late '90s, rock was in a deathly slump. He also benefited from good timing a decade later when he released his blockbuster Born In The U.S.A. hot on the heels of the Thriller backlash, presenting a healthy, all-American alternative to the fey synth-puke dominating the airwaves of the early '80s. All that said, he's one of the more compelling performers to play this music called rock'n'roll, even if he's not quite the future of it as certain starry-eyed critics might have him be. The hardest-working man in showbiz combined rockabilly chord changes, Brit Invasion enthusiasm, Stax/Volt punch, Phil Spector wall of sound monomania, Dylanesque wordiness, and Woody Guthrie gritty populism to create a sound that's at its best more than the sum of its parts and rises above its influences for something wholly original. Overwhelmingly (sometimes oppressively) earnest even when he's faking it (pretending to be a Dust Bowl refugee of Reaganism when he's probably never even set foot in Nebraska), Bruce defines white working-class America with its cultural conservatism and its left-wing pro-labor politics. Of course, Springsteen's a millionare rockstar, but I'll leave the analysis of sociological contradictions to other critics for now, and just get to the records themselves.

Of course there are more than enough Springsteen webpages out there for you to handle, many revolving around bootlegs and tape trading. Try this list of Springsteen Links.

Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey (1973) ****1/2

A concept album about a New Jersey that doesn't exist, but you wish it did, Bruce starts off with his career with a flourish. Since it's his most underrated disc, the one that never gets played on the radio, I used to rate it his best, but it's not quite: his enthusiasm blares through, but like all first efforts, there are a few missteps. For starters, the first words you hear are "Madmen bummers drummers and Indians in the summer with the teenage diplomat", obviously spouting from the pen of a young man a bit too besotted with Bob Zimmerman. And much as I'm obliged to a tip of the hat to my fine state, "Mary Queen Of Arkansas" is a tough groaner to sit through, though in later years Springsteen would master the acoustic ballad he so fails at here. Yet despite his occasional lyrical fumblings, I find the Dylanesque street poetry has a verve and sheer fun quotient that's hard to resist; aside from a Vietnam vet ("Lost In The Flood") and dockworker dreams mixing with Black Panther schemes, there's nigh a dark cloud to be found amidst Bruce's Jersey. He introduces you too a mod-Chaucerian cast of colorfully-named characters that cockily strut the streets of the gritty city where the women are pretty, take the bus to 82nd street and watch the world go by, and spend their nights skinnydipping out by the local beer-can infested lake. His first time out and already everything's in place - his songwriting's strong and his sheer exuberance busts through all over the place. As a bonus he rhymes "growing up" with "throwing up", which sums up adolescence about as well as any couplet can.

Reader Comments

Ben Greenstein,

The first record is still my favourite. I LOVE "Growin' Up," "Spirit In The Night," and "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City," and the depressing ones are really fun as well. Hell, I even really like "Mary Queen Of Arkansas," which seems to be universally despised by Boss fans everywhere. I think it's about a transvestite, which is good, because you can never have too many songs about transvestites. "Lost In The Flood" is beautiful, too, and both "Blinded By The Night" and "For You" really get my heart a-pumping. I'd give this album a perfect five - nothing else he did even comes close.

The Wild, The Innocent, And The East Street Shuffle ***

An improvement in terms of band confidence, production (bright and clear as opposed to the debut's slight mud), lyrical vision, etc., it's still a downturn in quality for two reasons. First, the songwriting's not as consistent; most of the first half I could easily live without - I kinda dig the part where the boys go "Whoah-whoah" in "The East Street Shuffle", but the song with the funky break doesn't move me in any other way. Second, Bruce flourishes the excessive melodrama that typifies him at his worst - I don't know what he's moaning so much about over a desultory piano on "New York City Serenade", and I don't care. Also, with only seven songs, the lengths are a bit too much on the numbers I don't care for. However, on the numbers I do care for, the spacious song lengths give the E. Street Band plenty of room to shine and allow Bruce to set the stage for a melding of rock and opera that Pete Townshend could only smash his guitar in frustration for. I usually despise "rock opera", but for once someone - Bruce Springsteen - actually pulls it off. How else am I going to describe the gorgeous "Incident On 57th Street", a panoramic valentine to inner city romance that reads like a less daft West Side Story? At the core of this album sits "Rosalita", who Bruce spirits away from her watchful parents to take out dancing, though how his car breaking down in the Jersey swamps fits in to the narrative I'm clueless (I guess he had to fit a car in there somewhere or else it wouldn't have been the ultimate Springsteen song). So despite my reservations, I'm glad I've got this album for those two songs, and a couple of the others are good, too, though nowhere near that caliber.

Reader Comments

Ben Greenstein,

I agree - the melodies are defenitely weaker, and the individual songs just aren't as good. The exceptions are "Rosalita" and "Incident On 57th Street," which are fantastic songs, and a couple of others have sections that I really care for (the organ part in "The E Street Shuffle"). Still, it's just not as engaging as the subsequent ones. So I give it a three. Pretty weak, for Bruce.

Born To Run (1975) ****1/2

The breakthrough that put Springsteen on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week as "The Future Of Rock'n'Roll", a lot of people view this as the ultimate rock album, but - ..... Now I'm not saying that this isn't a great album. I'm not saying that it's not Springsteen's second best album. What I'm saying is that it's overrated. This isn't the future of rock'n'roll - this is '50s greaser nostalgia with a booming backbeat. Okay, so I got that out of my system, and the preceding comment is the meanest thing I'm going to say about this album, except that for an album that's supposed to be this great, it has a surprising ratio of dull songs - 3 out of 8: "Night", "Meeting Across The River", "She's The One" (the last one the worst). Maybe even "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", except that I really like the "I'm alone" echoing bridge, and it's got a great groove. Yeah, I know, every album in existence has at least one song on it that isn't all that great, and I'm only nitpicking Bruce because critics drool so much over this album. Any disc that starts off with "Thunder Road" is already a classic. It's the perfect Springsteen song, and perhaps my favorite in his canon; the sheer cinematic sweep and scope is staggering in itself, but what makes it work is it's a song about two ordinary people on an ordinary day - the alright but not beautiful woman sways on her front porch to the radio playing "Only The Lonely", he thinks back to graduation night and riding with her to make-out point in his car, but tonight, he promises her, they're going to bust out of this dead-end town and leave all the hometown losers behind. It's the small-town American dream, one that resurfaces in the title track - "It's a deathtrap/A suicide rap/We gotta get out while we're young", that somewhere over there is a better place where everything's going to be better. Well, maybe, but life's still life in the end. This album is the pinnacle of Springsteen's Phil Spector obsession, but the Ronettes never came close to kicking their wall of sound with the intensity of the opening drumbeats of "Born To Run" - those opening bars are impossible to ignore. The other two great songs are "Backstreets" and "Jungleland", which definitely earn their respective 6:30 and 9:35 lengths - back-alley opera that Kurt Veill could only wish he were able to write.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978) ****

Innocence lost. After the colorful fun of his first three albums, Bruce grew up and learned some hard truths, and it was never the same. The losers caught in the death trap are his primary subject now, and he writes about their dead-end dreams on their dead-end streets, stuck in dead-end jobs with dead-end lives. Nobody ever points this out for some reason, but after hearing this chap called Graham Parker who debuted with a couple of great albums in 1976 (and anyone who's a fan of Bruce will love Graham and vice versa), I can't help hearing the influence. Especially in the sarcastic vocals, which are very un-Bruce-like, I can tell that Bruce is trying to adopt Parker's tone, and I know that both were mutual fans. You see, by 1978 punk rock had happened, and I suppose you could call this Springsteen's punk-influenced work in that it's tough, angry, stripped down, and brutal. The ballads don't do anything at all, they just lie down on the street and sit there, and a couple of the harder numbers ("Adam Raised A Cain") aren't very good, either. But the rest is good and anthemic, defiant and desperate - a young man dreams of the "Promised Land", but he winds up in the "Factory" like his father before him. He goes up to "Candy's Room" for thrills and tries to "Prove It All Night", but there's a "Darkness On The Edge Of Town". Never again would Springsteen sound this bitter and embattled; while none of these songs are up to the level of the best songs on Born To Run, there are more of them here - it's all very depressing, and ocassionally tough to listen too (I miss Bruce's exuberance), but overall it's powerful stuff. Just remember to skip over "Something In The Night" and "Racing In The Street", 'cause those songs will put you to sleep.

The River (1980) ***1/2

It seems that every "Major Artist" has to put out the self-indulgent, sprawling double-album, and this is Springsteen's. In one sitting it's hard to get through, especially the latter half in which he sets mid-tempo ballads with vaguely the same melodies alongside each other and snappy but generic rockers until it all turns into soundalike mush. Fanatics will slop it all up, but more distanced admirers will protest overload. Too much Bruce is too much Bruce - handily he recreates the feel of one of his legendary concerts, with the first two hours GREAT!, but then the next two you're looking at your watch. Luckily this album's only an hour and a half long, not four hours. The themes he introduced on Darkness are followed through here in a more sober, reflective tone, culminating in the chillingly despondent title track, which also serves as a taster of the style he'd essay on Nebraska. "Independence Day" is another masterful ballad, and so's "Stolen Car", but he throws in some lighter, uptempo material like the hit "Hungry Heart". "Out In The Street" struts as cockily as anything off his first album. The album's marriage of lighter, '50s-derived rock with a modern outlook is summed up with "I Wanna Marry You", a doo-wop tune in which the pretty little girl is a single mother. Essential for Springsteen fans, but if you're new to him or just a casual fan, by all means go to some of his other albums first.

Nebraska (1982) ****

From out of left field came a completely unexpected release from a man marketed for next-big-thing superstardom: an all-acoustic Woody Guthrie style foray into America's heartland, populated with assorted going-nowhere losers. The title track tells the first-person story of Charlie Starkweather, a psychopath headed for the electric chair who wants to see his baby sitting up there in her chair. I had this conversation once with this writer in the University of Arkansas M.F.A. program (regional chauvinists note that it's the second best program in the nation, after Iowa, of course) who let it slip that he started getting into reading literature after reading interviews with Springsteen about his Flannery O'Conner influence. And yes, O'Conner could have very easily written some of these tales - just the name Charlie Starkweather is obviously a nod to her. My favorite is the one in which a policeman is always getting his Vietnam Vet brother out of trouble, until one night his brother gets drunk and kills a guy. The cop chases his brother through the woods, until they get close to the Canadian border - and the cop pulls over, letting his brother go. "Atlantic City" is a close second - yeah, I like gambling and sin as much as any other patriotic American, but not in my backyard. Fight gambling propositions on the ballot in your state - do you really want to live in an "Atlantic City"? But I digress. One of Springsteen's better albums, it sounds nothing like the other ones he did because it's "Bruce Unplugged!". Which, for you kids out there who might not know, is better than "Beck Unplugged!" - who's good, actually, but Bruce is better at it. I can't say anything about Woody Guthrie, since I haven't heard enough of his work, but as for the inevitable Bob Dylan's a coin toss.

Reader Comments

Steve Knowlton,

Despite the poetry of his name, Charlie Starkweather was a real person who did go on a killing spree through Nebraska in the late 50's.

When I wrote that review, I didn't know that, but I do now after watching the movie Badlands, with Martin Sheen as Charlie Starkweather. Good flick; obviously Bruce liked it enough to write a song about it.

Born In The U.S.A. (1984) *****

If you were at all sentient during the '80s, then you know this album. Seven of these songs were Top 40 hits (!), and the ones that weren't - "Downbound Train", about a guy who gets laid off, loses his wife, and ends up working at a car wash; "Bobby Jean", about saying goodbye to your best friend (in this case E. Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt); "No Surrender" about the glory of teenage garage bands - deserved to be. The whole album is not damn near perfect, it is damn perfect. Reagan famously boneheadedly appropriated the title track, which got misunderstood as a flag-waving anthem - but is actually about a Vietnam Vet who gets screwed up and screwed over in 'Nam, only to come home to get screwed over some more. Okay, so "Cover Me" and "Dancing In The Dark" are kind of generic rockers, but they're like the pinnacle of generic rockers. Hiding behind the uptempo rock are some downright depressing sentiments - listen to the lyrics and you'll notice that most of the characters are losers with nowhere to go. Getting laid off seems to be the major motif Springsteen is working with here, as rustbelt workers find that their Industrial Era skills are meaningless in the New World Order of the Information Age - "My Hometown" describes my hometown pretty well, burned-out with the factory moved to Mexico and daddy telling you war stories about the early days of school integration. "Glory Days" is the ultimate anthem for those small-town blue collar folks for whom highschool was the last time they were free from the tyranny of punching the clock and raising kids, and so they get real sentimental about their old football victories. It makes me glad I was a nerd in highschool and got a scholarship to college, because at least I'm not going to wind up like the majority of my classmates. I suppose you already know exactly how you feel about this album. Most people split into two camps: a)those who are sick of hearing this on the radio already, and b)those who already own a copy. So what's the point of me writing this review? Oh yeah, that's right, the kids who were too young to remember the '80s and haven't heard this ad naseum all their lives!

Reader Comments

Daniel Stewart,

I just happened to stumble across this site and could not believe my eyes. You're probably the guy who remains seated throughout Springsteen shows until he plays something from "Born in the USA". "Born in the USA" was good, but it was one of his worst. "The Wild..." was his best album. Every Springsteen fan knows that. That is why he still has such a large following. Fairweather "Born in the USA" followers died out a long time ago. Thank goodness.

Tunnel Of Love (1987) ***1/2

My parents bought this album the week it came out, millions of Americans breathlessly awaited Springsteen's followup to the third or fourth biggest selling album of all time, and discovered upon their highly anticipated first listening that it was - alright. Not great or anything, but just good. After all that mega-success, Springsteen deliberately made a low-key album about domesticity; not the type of stuff that you encore with in arenas, which was exactly the point. It starts off bad with the dumb finger-snappin' "Ain't Got You", but soon rights itself with thoughtful, mature songwriting, and subdued, mid-tempo backing that never gets loud or bombastic. That can be a minus - ocassionally these mid-tempo concoctions bleed into each other a bit too much and my attention drifts off. Still, in measured doses this is as good as prime Springsteen. He tackles one subject - love, you dunce - and comes across an average sensitive guy like me and you with the typical problems with women. "One Step Up", subtle ballad with a great melody, is my favorite, and "Cautious Man", the title track, and "Brilliant Disguise" are close behind. His lyrics are exemplary - nothing fancy, just the typical straight-shooting average guy talk we've come to expect from Bruce, and which I'll take any day over your run-of-the-mill Dylan/Morrison (Van and Jim)-damaged "rock poetry". Still, I find myself curiously dulled by a lot of this; he's being a little too mature and tasteful to really get me excited.

Lucky Town (1992)
Human Touch (1992)
The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)
Tracks (1998)

I picked up Human Touch the other day for a couple of bucks, two dollars that I shall unfortunately never see again.... I suppose I'll review it sometime, if I can ever force myself to listen to it again. Tom Joad is a return to Nebraska territory, and I haven't heard it, though it did get positive reviews. Tracks is a 4-disc box set of unreleased outtakes and rarities, and has recieved surprisingly positive reviews for work one would assume is only for hardcore fans - but it's not, so I've been lead to believe, since Springsteen supposedly left off much of his best material from the original albums.

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We gotta get out while we're young....