When Springsteen first appeared on the national music scene in the mid-seventies, he seemed to have taken some separate evolutionary track from the rest of rock music. By this time, most mainstream rock performers had reduced their craft to a fairly slick formula (while newer performers were beginning to revolt against this sort of complacency). But Springsteen seemed to simply ignore most of the sixties. In some ways, his music preserved some of the best elements of early rock’n roll, capturing the energy, the ambition, and the sound of performers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Featuring two guitars, piano, organ, drums, bass guitar and saxophone, he and his band produced a rich and raucous sound that was constantly inventive and surprising. Instead of cleanly produced tracks featuring the efforts of one or two virtuoso instrumentalists (as in Led Zeppelin, let’s say), Springsteen’s efforts featured the unified sound of a band, with different instruments and parts merging together in constantly shifting patterns. The E Street Band was sort of a mobile Wall of Sound, combining the energy of early live rock’n roll performers with the unified, band sound of a great studio ensemble.
The other obvious influence was Bob Dylan. Springsteen’s lyrics were imaginative, featuring inventive wordplay and sometimes surreal imagery. And his vocals were rough and expressive, sometimes spoken as much as sung, again in apparent emulation of Dylan.
What Springsteen brought to the party that was all his own was a willingness to play with song structures. No matter how inventive rock performers had been in other areas, almost all of them clung to a rigid verse-chorus-bridge song structure like drowning sailors to a life raft. There was good reason for this conservatism: the same basic song structure had worked well in all popular musical forms of the 20th century, including the blues, bluegrass, country, folk, rhythm ‘n blues, and early rock’n roll.
But if rock music is truly about liberation, then it certainly can’t hurt for an artist and his songs to at least show some signs of trying to free themselves from these traditional structures. And that is exactly what Springsteen did with his early material. Springsteen’s approach to song structure was much more fluid than that of his contemporaries, with the structure of each song adapting itself to the thematic content, rather than the other way around.
Springsteen also showed a flair in his early work for truly composing an entire sound for each track. So while “Thunder Road,” for example, is a song that tells a particular story and has a particular melody, it is also, inseparably, a song with a tentative, dancing, lonely piano part, that ends with a powerful, swooping, triumphant instrumental sound. “Meeting Across the River” is remembered as much for its haunting trumpet part and brave yet defeated vocal reading, as it is for its story and melody. And the list goes on.
Starting with Springsteen’s third album, Born to Run, Springsteen formed an interesting partnership with music critic Jon Landau. After Landau declared Springsteen to be the future of rock, he ended up co-producing his albums, and eventually assuming management responsibilities for the artist. Unfortunately the transition from early manager Mike Appel to Landau was not a smooth one. Legal issues emerged (as they always seem to in the music business), and the effect was that three years passed before Springsteen could release his next album, broodingly titled Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Springsteen’s career after Born to Run is almost a case study in the challenges facing a rock artist who wants to be true to his calling over the years. In terms of noble and earnest intent, and artistic integrity, Springsteen gets the highest possible marks. Looking at the decisions he has made, he has worked hard to avoid the most common pitfalls of a maturing rocker.
Given this long list of virtues, practically unmatched by any other rock artist of his stature, it seems a bit ungrateful to mention any deficiencies. I do feel compelled, however, to point out a couple.
First, after Born to Run, Springsteen seemed to turn his back on the art of finely crafted studio recordings. At the same time, he seemed to abandon any inventiveness about song structure or lyric content. It was as if his aesthetic ambitions suddenly shifted. His songs became much more traditional, and his presentation of the songs seemed focused on what he could play himself, unaided, or on what he and the E Street Band could effectively deliver to a stadium full of appreciative fans.
But a more serious problem, at least in my mind, has been the devolution of the protagonists in Springsteen’s songs. In Springsteen’s early work his characters showed signs of individuality, intelligence, youthfulness and ambition. Starting with Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, the typical Springsteen protagonist seems a sort of dim-witted Neanderthal suddenly transported to a modern society he neither appreciates nor understands. Let’s look at some representative lyrics, first from “The River.”
I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown company.
But lately there ain’t been much work,
On account of the economy.
Next from “Hungry Heart.”
Got a wife and kid in Baltimore, Jack.
I went out for a ride and I never went back.
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing,
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.
And now from “Nebraska.”
They declared me unfit to live,
Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled.
They wanted to know why I did what I did:
Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
What I find most disturbing about these heroes is that Springsteen’s own life and behavior have been almost the opposite of those he portrays in his songs. Where he has achieved success through his own hard work, been generous with his audiences and fellow musicians, taken responsibility for his own actions, and avoided opportunities for failure through his native intelligence, his protagonists seem like amoral victims whose irresponsibility and inability to predict the consequences of their own actions are apparently justified by the unfeeling world in which they live. It is almost as if Springsteen feels guilty about his own gifts and has decided to punish himself by relentlessly celebrating the lives of those less fortunate.
Having recently seen again the classic Preston Sturges film, Sullivan’s Travels, it is hard not to picture Springsteen as the successful depression-era director suddenly feeling the urge to make a deep social statement. The difference with Springsteen, it seems, is that that no one ever stopped him from making O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Original Release Date: 1999
Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)
This album contains 18 songs, and includes many Springsteen crowd-pleasers. The last four tracks are new material, specially recorded for this album, as if to assure people that Springsteen’s career is not yet over. While there is lots of good stuff here, there is also a lot of great stuff that is missing, including any material at all from his first two albums. Almost anyone would be better off buying individual studio albums of interest.
Original Release Date: 1973
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
An extraordinarily vigorous and promising debut album. Springsteen’s lyrics are imaginative, poetic and often surreal, obviously inspired by Dylan. The playing is energetic and inventive. This album and the next featured Springsteen’s original drummer, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. While not as predictable as his successor, Max Weinberg, Lopez had a frenetic energy that was probably a better match for the lyric inventiveness found on these early efforts. Includes “Blinded by the Light,” “Growin’ Up,” “Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?,” “Lost in the Flood,” “For You,” “Spirit in the Night” and “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.”
Original Release Date: 1973
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
An amazingly mature and accomplished album. While later personnel changes (producer, manager, drummer and organist) and a lack of initial commercial success might brand this album as no more than a stepping stone to following achievements, this work deserves serious recognition on its own. The lyrics are more focused and less showy than on the first album. The instrumentation is rich and inventive, stretching out to take advantage of some of the heightened possibilities offered by the recording studio. Includes “The E Street Shuffle,” 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Kitty’s Back” and “Rosalita.”
Original Release Date: 1975
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This is a great album, marred only by the somewhat self-conscious awareness of its greatness. In terms of personnel, this is a transitional album. Lopez has been replaced on drums by Max Weinberg. Jon Landau has come aboard and gets co-production credits with original manager/producer Mike Appel. Keyboards player and overall musical influence David Sancious appears on only one track, about to move on to a career as solo jazz artist and popular session musician.
Judging by the time it took to record, the number of players given credits, the diversity of instrumentation and mood from one track to the next, the overall complexity of the production, and the singer/songwriter’s later discussions, this is easily the most ambitious studio effort of Springsteen’s career. Springsteen and company were quite intentionally reaching for greatness on this effort, and achieved their goal. From the cover artwork to the last note of the album, there is a classic look and feel to the entire effort.
If the album has a flaw, it is only in its devout seriousness. The light-hearted senses of humor and adventure readily available on the first two albums are already gone. Whereas the hero of “Rosalita” was able to undercut the seriousness of his intent with comic misadventure and energetic excess, there is now a sense of desperation surrounding the hero of “Thunder Road.” Whereas Rosie was “the one” and the hero’s “stone desire,” Mary is frankly “not a beauty” but merely “alright.” And where Springsteen’s earlier characters had individual eccentricities that made them seem like living flesh, everything not frankly mythic or tragic has been shorn away from these later figures.
Caveats aside, however, this is probably the one Springsteen album to own if you can afford only one, and is full of great music. Includes “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “Backstreets,” “Born to Run,” “Meeting Across the River” and “Jungleland.”
Original Release Date: 1978
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
The distance traveled from the last album is enormous, in many respects. Whereas the former cover showed a happy and successful Springsteen leaning on the back of Clarence Clemons, the cover of this album has a quite obvious B-Movie “film noir” look to it, with Springsteen disheveled and clad in a T-shirt, looking like he is stumbling bleary-eyed out of a cheap motel at six in the morning. Whereas the look of the last album had a rich and classic design, the simulated typewriter look of the fonts used on this album are trying to impress no one. Three years passed between the last album and this one, a period during which legal battles prevented Springsteen from recording. And whereas the last album was carefully recorded with a host of different musicians each selected to play a well-defined role on a specific track, musical credits on this album are confined to the current regulars of the E Street Band. And finally, the lyrics have gone from disenchanted romanticism to brutal honesty. In three albums Springsteen has gone from wild innocence, to a determined defiance, and finally to a bleak world in which his protagonist’s hopes and dreams are his worst enemies, since he seems condemned to live in a world where they can never be realized, and serve only to taunt him. The album seems full of a sort of existential alienation, in which the characters are unable to feel any connection with anything.
And whereas on prior works there was at times an obvious distance between Springsteen the artist and some of the subjects he observed, on Darkness that distance simply collapses. So while the doomed loser of “Meeting Across the River” was clearly more of a character observed than Springsteen himself, Springsteen seems to completely inhabit the personae of the outsiders who haunt Darkness.
Includes “Badlands,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Candy’s Room,” “Racing in the Street,” “The Promised Land,” “Streets of Fire” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
Original Release Date: 1980
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
This is a double album with twenty songs on it. This is also the album on which Springsteen matures, accepting his role as a late 20th century folk singer and anointed spokesman for his audience. So while Springsteen is full of alienated rage and sees himself as an outsider on Darkness, here he pens a sort of cheery rocker, “Hungry Heart,” about a man who walks out on his wife and kids and seems incapable of forming any lasting relationships. (When performed live, this song is always an audience participation favorite. I’m not sure what it means to have 10,000 fans happily singing “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack; I went out for a ride and I never came back,” but it certainly is an interesting phenomenon.)
“Two Hearts” may be the most telling song on the album. Springsteen sings:
Once I spent my time playing tough guy scenes,
But I was living in a world of childish dreams.
Someday these childish dreams must end,
To become a man and grow up to dream again.
The title of the album, and the fact that it is a double album, seem to convey the singer’s new intention to represent a broad constituency of feelings and characters in his music. This is also Springsteen’s Auto Album, with profiles of cars punctuating the lyric sheet, and cars figuring prominently in nearly half the songs. Springsteen seems fully aware that these vehicles are both a blessing and a curse, representing a sense of power and release but also isolating their riders from their communities and from each other.
This album also contains a couple of deeply felt ballads. “Independence Day” is about the bittersweet senses of independence and separation that come between parents and children as they grow older. The title song is about a lower middle-class couple growing up and facing the conflicts between their dreams and the realities of their lives. Here Springsteen finally settles on an appropriate distance between himself, the artist, and the characters in his songs. In terms of the situations he describes — working construction jobs, joining a labor union, marrying young — the characters in the song are obviously not Springsteen. But in terms of emotional distance, Springsteen empathizes completely with these characters, eliminating the ironic distance found in “Meeting Across the River,” for example. Springsteen the sophisticated observer has vanished from these tales, leaving no one to intrude upon the relationships between his listeners and his characters.
“I’m a Rocker” is also indicative of a shift in Springsteen’s perspective. A few albums ago, in “Rosalita,” our hero was liberating his love from the clutches of her parents, boasting of a new record contract, and offering her a trip to the West Coast. And while all this was framed in a comic setting, the basic elements of the story came from real life. The liberation offered was sincere and meaningful. Now, in this later song, Springsteen starts by boasting of possessing super-hero trappings: a 007 watch, an I-Spy Beeper and a Batmobile, openly mocking as superhuman the powers he once thought he had. He continues in this vein throughout the song, comparing the task of winning his girl’s heart back to the heroic feats of these fictional characters. So while there is just enough of an element of reality to provide some meaningful basis for the story, most of the song portrays the role of liberator as a comic book fantasy. And, significantly, the only true heroic quality celebrated in this song is the singer’s constancy, his willingness to offer his girl love after she has had her heart broken by “some jerk who was tall, dark and handsome.”
Musically, Springsteen becomes much more economical and traditional on this album. Experimentation with song structures and instrumentation are abandoned, but this fits perfectly with the singer’s newfound lyric and thematic intent. He is no longer writing to express himself, but to express the feelings of a community of which he is a part. And so the musical embellishments go, and reliance on traditional song structure is reinforced, as a proven means of communicating with his audience, and reaffirming his connection with that audience.
Includes “Two Hearts,” “Independence Day,” “Hungry Heart,” “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “The River,” “Cadillac Ranch” and “I’m a Rocker.”
Original Release Date: 1982
Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)
What was initially a demo tape for this new batch of songs ultimately became the final album. Featuring only Springsteen’s vocals, guitar and harmonica, this is essentially a sort of modern folk album. Whereas on Darkness the characters were outsiders and losers and probably criminals, the details of their existence were fuzzily romanticized, guilty only of “wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.” But here, in the title song, the protagonist speaks openly of going on a killing spree, being caught and awaiting execution. The rest of the album is similarly detailed. Small wonder that Springsteen was unable to record these songs with the E Street Band. Earlier songs had talked about alienation and isolation, but in a sort of romanticized way that allowed contradictions like a group sing-along of “Hungry Heart” to happen. But there was a stark, matter-of-fact realism to these new songs that simply allowed no room for the implied community or the emotional energy of a band rendition. Even when performing these songs live, with the E Street Band on stage behind him, there is not much for them to do. If the theme of rock music is liberation, then there is nothing for a rock band to do here, for there is no liberation offered, either comic or otherwise. If anything, this is an album entirely about the folly of liberation, ending as it does by marvelling that “at the end of every hard earned day, people still find some reason to believe.”
One can almost picture this album as some sort of demented dare (or rock singer’s version of a “Survivor” television show). “You think you’re a songwriter, huh? OK. Take away the rock band. Ditch the recording studio. Leave behind the popular and populist topics. We’re going to put you on an island with nothing but a guitar, a harmonica, a 4-track tape recorder, and a bunch of murderers and assorted criminals to sing about. Now let’s see how many albums you can sell!”
While Nebraska was never a commercial success on the scale of Springsteen’s more popular albums, it achieved all of the goals Springsteen could possibly have had for it. The songs were haunting and effective, proving Springsteen worthy to stand in the tradition of predecessors such as Woody Guthrie. And while the album never found a large audience, it did find a dedicated one, attracting fans who might otherwise be repelled by the big arena shows and Top Ten hits. And he rebounded commercially on later albums, especially Born in the USA, selling more albums than ever. In his live shows, he was able to integrate the Nebraska material, giving these songs wider exposure than they enjoyed through original album sales.
Includes “Nebraska,” “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99” “ and “Reason to Believe.”
Original Release Date: 1984
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
This was Springsteen’s most popular album, with no less than seven of its twelve tracks becoming Top Ten hits. Springsteen returned to the band format, and to more populist themes. But the combination of straight-ahead rock with tales of alienation yielded fresh contradictions, such as Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign appropriating the “Born in the USA” track as pep rally material, even though a careful listen to the words would have revealed a song about a disenchanted Vietnam veteran.
These is probably the most universal and accessible set of songs Springsteen has written. The hero of the title tune is a war veteran, so while he is another alienated outsider, he is not a mass murderer, but someone with a story that most Americans could relate to. The other songs have similarly broad appeal.
Includes “Born in the USA,” “Cover Me,” “Darlington County,” “I’m on Fire,” “No Surrender,” “Bobby Jean,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “My Hometown.”
Original Release Date: 1986
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
If you have never experienced a live Springsteen show, or want to relive the experience, then this 3-CD set provides as good a simulation as you can get. Recorded over a ten-year span, the material starts with performances at the Roxy, a small club in LA, and then goes on to the big stadium shows. The early material is my favorite, offering a more intimate glimpse of Springsteen than is available now, with the quiet reading of “Thunder Road” being a standout. The collection features a number of personal Springsteen stories either opening or punctuating the songs, showcasing the singer’s sense of drama, and offering something not available on the studio recordings.
The range of material included is everything one could hope for, including songs from all of the major albums mentioned above, as well as additional material, such as a passionate performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The best of the Nebraska material is shoe-horned in as well, even though it makes little use of the E Street Band.
In general, I prefer the studio recordings of almost all of these songs, so this album is not recommended as a substitute for the other albums, but as a complement to them. Given Springsteen’s reputation for heroic live performances, this collection serves admirably as a sampler from those shows.
Original Release Date: 1987
Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)
Mostly songs about romantic love, and questioning the validity of romantic relationships. In retrospect, given Springsteen’s divorce a year after this album was released, this was probably the most autobiographical of his later efforts. Other than this shift in focus, there was nothing radically different about the music. Once again, though, Springsteen earns points for constantly trying something new, never content to simply repeat past successes, artistic or commercial.
Original Release Date: 2002
Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)
This album from Springsteen and the E Street Band was a welcome surprise in many ways. First, there is the reunion with the band, since Springsteen had not recorded with them for a period of fifteen years preceding this album. Then, there is a fresh sound brought by a new producer, Brendan O’Brien. In many ways, this seems like the most carefully arranged and produced effort from Springsteen since Born to Run. Finally, there is the thematic focus on the events and aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on New York city that occurred on 09/11/2001. In other hands, it is hard to see how an artist of Springsteen’s stature could avoid the accusation of trying to cash in on this national disaster, but the entire album expresses such a heart-felt desire to support the community — to express its unresolved feelings, to help its members along in their process of healing, to literally sing of its otherwise unsung heros — that any such accusations simply fall away before they can be spoken.
The biggest surprise from this album, in the end, is the complete demonstration of the success of Springsteen’s conception of his role as an artist, a vision he has been steadfastly pursuing and refining over a career of thirty-some years. Unlike many other rock artists, he has continuously pursued a serious quest to explore the limits of his powers. His music has consistently reflected a mission to express the feelings and describe the situations of people who would otherwise have no voice in our society. He has been a folk artist in the most essential sense, expressing the deepest feelings of a larger audience, and bringing his art to an audience that otherwise might not know the solace of such expression.
In this time, and in this place, Springsteen finds an audience that has never needed him more, and he rises to the occasion as if his entire life had been in preparation for this moment.