Based on his radio hits I once classed Bruce Springsteen as a lame rocker, responsible for lowest common denominator anthems such as ‘Born in the U.S.A.’. But of course, there’s a reason why he’s so respected, and 1984’s huge selling Born In The USA album was simply the commercial culmination of a reputation built by incessant touring and an excellent body of recorded work stretching back more than a decade.
There’s plenty to enjoy; Springsteen is a thoughtful and compassionate writer, and he’s backed by the strong E Street Band. Springsteen is also an underrated guitarist, capable of fluid solos, and he’s got a broad enough stylistic range to give many of his albums a unique flavour; for instance Nebraska is stripped back and solo, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle is loose and jazzy, while Born To Run has the densely layered feel of a Phil Spector production.
For me Springsteen’s peak era is unquestionably the three album span from 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle through to 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. While Springsteen has continued making albums and I’ve covered through until 2006’s We Shall Overcome, his last indispensable studio album is 1988’s Tunnel Of Love, and his most significant albums since then have been his archival releases. He’s remained vital as a live performer, and is notable for his three hour concerts.
Bruce Springsteen Album Reviews
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. | The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle | Born to Run | Darkness on the Edge of Town | The River | Nebraska | Born in the USA | Tunnel of Love | Human Touch | Lucky Town | The Ghost of Tom Joad | 18 Tracks | Live in New York City | The Rising | Devils and Dust | We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions | The Promise
Favourite Album: Darkness on the Edge of Town
Overlooked Gem: The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
Bruce Springsteen’s career started with this slightly awkward debut, which downplays the rock and roller, and emphasises Springsteen as a singer-songwriter. Even though it’s not his best, it’s at least charismatic – even if some of the material is less than engrossing, he’s still an engaging persona. While Springsteen would explore more stripped back recordings successfully later in his career, some of the acoustic material here drowns in verbosity, like he’s trying to emulate Dylan.
It’s the full band material, like ‘Spirit In The Night’ and the hint of bombast that appears in ‘Lost In The Flood’, that’s the most effective and the most predictive of his later direction. The blatant Dylan imitation ‘Mary Queen Of Arkansas’, generic singer-songwriterism ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street’ and boring piano ballad ‘The Angel’ are all largely disposable, while the gentle fade out of ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ ends the album on a strangely anti-climactic note. The first two songs are the most widely known, and they’re both strong; ‘Blinded By The Night’ is overburdened with words but was later a hit in an inferior Manfred Mann cover version, while ‘Growin’ Up’ nails the singer-songwriter style, throws in a jazzy keyboard solo, and features the great line “I had a jukebox graduate for first mate/She couldn’t sail but she sure could sing.”
There’s evidence of an emerging talent here, but Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ doesn’t capture Springsteen at his most comfortable and natural; it would be a long while before he made another album as negligible as this one.
The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
Reminiscent of Van Morrison, with a jazzy feel and rambling urban narratives, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is a much more satisfying sophomore effort from Springsteen. Springsteen is joined by his backing E Street Band, who only appeared spasmodically on the previous record; long time associates Clarence Clemons, Gary Tallent, and Danny Federici are all on board here, contributing to the collaborative feel. Some of the jazzy feel comes from pianist David Sancious and drummer Vini Lopez, who both contribute expressive and extroverted parts, but who were replaced before the next album. Springsteen is the only guitarist on the album, and handles all the guitar parts expertly.
There is precisely one nondescript Dylan-ripoff in the middle, the promisingly titled ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’, but the other six songs are uniformly excellent. The epic ‘Incident on 57th Street’ is gripping with its organ runs and narrative, ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ is plaintive and pretty, and ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ is the most upfront and accessible tune on the album. Even the ten minutes of ‘New York City Serenade’ are relatively accessible.
The blockbuster success of its followup Born to Run may have robbed Springsteen of the chance to make a similar album – he never had the opportunity to make an album that felt so loose and narrow in focus again.
Born to Run
After gaining critical respect with his first two albums, Born to Runwas Springsteen’s commercial breakthrough. A Phil Spector inspired big sound provides the backdrop; with huge amounts of money spent on recording, the album was a do or die effort for Springsteen’s career. He succeeded; Born to Run is accessible and established Springsteen as a major creative force in a stagnating music scene.
While the characters are the same youths on the cusp of adulthood that populated the previous album, this time the situations are less romantic and more desperate; the title track draws a dark vision of an impeding boring life in suburbia which the protagonist hopes to escape from (“Someday girl I don’t know when/We’re gonna get to that place/Where we really want to go/And we’ll walk in the sun/But till then tramps like us/Baby we were born to run”) while the chilling ‘Meeting Across The River’ describes a get rich quick scheme to escape the encroaching monotony. Springsteen’s grandiose themes are perfectly matched by the grandiose music which reaches moments of thrilling authority, such as the coda of ‘Backstreets’ or the saxophone solo in the title track.
The title track’s melody is reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’, but it still generates an adrenaline rush. ‘Tenth Avenue Freezeout’ finds the E Street Band riding a catchy jazzy groove, while the significant epics ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Jungleland’ that bookend the album are both effective. Most successful of all is ‘Meeting Across The River’, with its film noir atmosphere and direct melody. A few of the lesser tracks like ‘Night’ and ‘She’s The One’, however, are too uninteresting for Born to Run to be a perfect album.
Born To Run kick-started Springsteen’s flagging career, and as a whole its potency is undeniable.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
After the success of Born To Run, Springsteen was caught in a legal battle, and unable to release an album for three years, an eternity in the 1970s. The eventual album is darker in vision than his previous work, and the music is simpler, with the romanticized landscapes and characters giving way to grown ups trapped in the bland realities that the previous album’s protagonists sought to avoid, such as working in factories. Darkness On The Edge Of Town is perhaps Springsteen’s most focused and most rock-oriented album, it’s not too self-consciously anthemic and it’s not blatantly commercial, making it the quintessential Springsteen record. Springsteen whips out a stinging guitar solo in almost every song, adding to the edgy mood.
Opener ‘Badlands’ is a perfect encapsulation of the album as a whole; elegant ragtime piano lines struggle against searing guitar, while Springsteen intones insightful lyrics like “Spend your life waiting/for a moment that just don’t come.” ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ raises the intensity another notch, with Springsteen screaming the last verse almost uncontrollably. The E Street Band are a perfect foil in the drama of ‘Candy’s Room’ – a juxtaposition of graceful piano and edgy drumming. The title track is powerfully effective, the verse melody borrowing from Neil Young’s ‘After The Goldrush’, before launching into another aggressive chorus, while ‘Racing In The Street’ adds stylistic variety with a piano ballad, adapting The Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’; “summer’s here and the time is right/For goin’ racin’ in the street.” Even the lesser material is inflected with intensity (‘Streets Of Fire’), or neatly written but unremarkable in such a strong context (‘The Promised Land’).
If you’ve grown up with watered down Springsteen like the Born In The USA hits, don’t write him off before you experience his classic early albums.
Bruce Springsteen’s previous albums were disciplined, selecting songs to fit a theme or mood. For The River Springsteen released a sprawling double album; he’s still at the top of his game, as there’s a single album within it that would stand proudly alongside his previous three records. But alongside the top drawer songs like ‘Independence Day’ and the title track, there is sloppier and more lighthearted material like ‘I’m A Rocker’ and ‘Cadillac Ranch’, and the second rate material dilutes the impact of the album. Less serious car and girls songs go hand in hand with his social commentary and his developing interest in analysing adult relationships. The songs largely concern protagonists in their young twenties struggling with love and marriage, whereas Darkness on the Edge of Town focused on Springsteen’s parents’ generation.
Highlights include the single ‘Hungry Heart’, originally written for The Ramones; its bouncy melody is one of Springsteen’s most creative. ‘Independence Day’ and the title track are both emotional and sparse ballads. Most of the other ballads on the album are also enjoyable, making the slower paced second disc the stronger of the set; the spare desperate ‘Point Blank’ and the reflective ‘Stolen Car’ are both highlights, although ‘I Wanna Marry You’ is somewhat maudlin and ‘Drive All Night’ is a Van Morrison style ballad that drags on for eight minutes without Springsteen being able to push it over the top. I’m lukewarm about most of the upbeat material; songs like ‘Ramrod’, ‘I’m A Rocker’ and ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ all border on banal.
Flawed as it is, The River does come when Springsteen was still at the peak of his powers, and it has enough great material to make it worth examining, but it’s a disappointment after three consecutive great albums.
Sessions with the E-Street Band for the follow up to The River were unsatisfactory, so Landau and Springsteen instead released Springsteen’s solo demos as the finished album. Although Asbury Parkmay seem to be the closest antecedent in Springsteen’s prior catalogue to these stripped back guitar, harmonica and vocal arrangements, Nebraska is closest in tone to the dark and pessimistic Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The title track is based around the story of 1958 mass murderer Charlie Starkweather, songs like ‘State Trooper’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ are underscored by a eerily muted paranoia, and even the closing ‘Reason To Believe’ is guarded in its optimism.
Apart from the immediate ‘Atlantic City’, with its memorable “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies one day comes back” refrain, it’s difficult to pick out the individual songs, and Nebraska works primarily as a mood piece. It’s easy to see how this batch of songs has its maximum impact as an acoustic set; while ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Mansion On The Hill’ have strong melodies, and ‘Open All Night’ is a typical Springsteen rocker that would fit right onto The River, the majority of these songs aren’t particularly interesting musically, and the record is carried by its claustrophobic atmosphere and its strong lyrics.
Nebraska has its own singular charm, and it’s the Springsteen album for those who detest his more bombastic moments.
Born In The USA
As other commentators have noted, Springsteen established a pattern where he alternated between commercially oriented albums (Born To Run, The River) and darker and more idiosyncratic works (Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Nebraska). If Nebraska was one of his most difficult albums, then Born In The U.S.A. is his most mainstream work, spawning seven US Top Ten singles and transforming Springsteen into a cultural icon. The album’s success is warranted, as the material is consistent and consistently catchy. It’s well paced and extremely accessible, but it’s difficult to not miss the more ambitious earlier albums while listening to it.
As undemanding as Born In The USA is, it’s certainly not so substandard that fans should skip it altogether. The hits are mostly irritating, such as the simple synth hook of ‘Glory Days’ and the dance-able ‘Dancing In The Dark’. However, the charming ‘My Hometown’ takes strength from its simplicity and is a fitting closer, while the synthesizers of ‘I’m On Fire’ give it a mesmerising atmosphere. ‘Cover Me’ is a perfectly respectable rocker, with a great guitar solo, while ‘Bobby Jean’ is a strong album cut.
I prefer his earlier work, but Born In The U.S.A. is not quite a vapid commercial monstrosity either.
Tunnel Of Love
Born In The USA transformed Springsteen into a cultural icon and a brand, attaining a stratospheric level of critical acceptance and public attention. According to Springsteen’s release cycle, however, it was time for a difficult album again. Tunnel Of Love is more downbeat and somber than its predecessor, with no ebullient pop hits like ‘Glory Days’, although it’s still melodic and approachable. Based around the ups and downs of Springsteen’s brief marriage with model Julianne Philips, Tunnel Of Love shows a deepening maturity from Springsteen and the songs are more personal than anything he’d written earlier.
The material is two paced – the best is outstanding, but the lesser songs are disposable, like the bluesy rocker ‘Spare Parts’ and the opening a capella ‘Ain’t Got You’. It’s the more sophisticated pieces that shine in the low key approach, and songs like the ‘One Step Up’, ‘Brilliant Disguise’, and ‘Walk Like A Man’ impress with their eloquence and pretty melodies. The terrific ‘One Step Up’ states “When I look at myself I don’t see/The man I wanted to be/Somewhere along the line I slipped off track/I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back,” while in the poignant ‘Walk Like A Man’ Springsteen declares “as I watch my bride come down the aisle/I pray for the strength to walk like a man.” Other highlights include the driving pop of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’, the catchy ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and the heady title track, with its swirling synthesisers.
As much as I love the best half of Tunnel Of Love, I can’t really go higher than a 8 on it, since the other half isn’t nearly as interesting, but some of Springsteen’s best and most heartfelt songs are here regardless.
Many pop musicians reach a point where they become irrelevant, and Human Touch is Bruce Springsteen’s; happily remarried and settled down, he doesn’t have a whole lot of fire in his belly or interesting topics to write about, and the most memorable lyrics concern topics like childhood reminiscences. While ’57 Channels and Nothing On’ is sharper than its first verse would belie, its basic premise still betrays Springsteen’s more domesticated lifestyle. Musically, it’s similar to Tunnel Of Love, but less intricate and attempting to rock harder; the backing musicians lack the colour and energy that the E-Street Band bought to earlier recordings. Individually most of the tracks still have a distinctive Springsteen feel, if somewhat watered down, but a lack of strong songs and an overall blandness make Human Touch one of Springsteen’s least essential albums.
It doesn’t help that the strongest song here, the opening title track, is dragged out to over six minutes; it’s a fine pop song, but its effectiveness is diminished at that length. Apart from the low key and repetitive ’57 Channels’, the other irritating track is ‘Pony Boy’, a strange acoustic piece that closes the album. Otherwise, Human Touch is a bunch of second tier Springsteen material that’s most enjoyable but which feels slight overall, lacking the innovation and passion of previous efforts.
Human Touch is a conscientious effort from Springsteen, but it’s severely lacking in inspiration.
Springsteen went back into the studio a year after Human Touch was completed, to record an extra track for it. He ended up making an entire new album and the two albums were released on the same day, going straight to numbers 2 and 3 on the US chart before quickly falling off. Lucky Town is similar to its companion album in many respects, but it is also more accessible; more consistent, more concise and more urgent. There’s little on this album that stands alongside Springsteen’s best work, but Lucky Town is an enjoyable minor work.
It’s almost completely lacking in subtlety, as Springsteen bellows his way through every song, and the session musician backing is less sympathetic than the E Street Band, but it’s punchy and succinct, and most of the songs have memorable sing-along choruses. Highlights include the pleasant ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ and the title track, and the closing two tracks are also among the strongest.
Don’t expect to fall in love with Lucky Town, or even find a particularly substantial album, but it’s a serviceable enough 40 minute, 10 song collection.
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Named after the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, The Ghost Of Tom Joad is more stylistically palatable than Springsteen’s 1992 albums, sticking to acoustic arrangements instead of working with faceless L.A. studio musicians, but musically there’s little happening. The Ghost Of Tom Joad is often compared to Nebraska, but while Nebraska was intense in its desperation, The Ghost Of Tom Joad is laid back guitar strumming with neo-Woody Guthrie lyrics, and Springsteen only produces a couple of memorable songs.
The title track was later popularised by Rage Against The Machine and ‘Youngstown’ is the most melodic song here, although the electrified version on the New York City live album is much more compelling. The annoying string of clichés in the closing ‘My Best Was Never Good Enough’ (“If God gives you nothin’ but lemons, then you make some lemonade”) makes it stand out as the worst song.
The Ghost Of Tom Joad is consistent enough in tone that it makes some sense as to why it’s sometimes regarded as one of Springsteen’s better records, but it’s nowhere near peak Springsteen for me.
Providing an abridged version of Springsteen’s box-set of outtakes from the same year, 18 Tracks provoked the wrath of fans by including three coveted songs not included of the full version, forcing completists to buy both. Despite this lack of consideration for his followers, 18 Tracks is an entertaining collection; as Springsteen explains in the liner notes, many of these songs were omitted because they didn’t fit into the particular project he was working on, rather than because of any perceived lack of quality. As a chronologically arranged collection it shows Springsteen’s career path from earnest singer-songwriter of the ‘Growin’ Up’ demo to the corporate rock of ‘Trouble River’, and it’s a testament to his writing that he can neglect songs as catchy as ‘Pink Cadillac’ and ‘I Wanna Be With You’.
It’s an interesting exercise to try and perfect his studio albums; for instance ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ is the weak link on The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and ‘The Fever’ from this collection would have been a much stronger substitute. There’s also a large residue of leftovers from the Born In The U.S.A. sessions; they’re mostly excellent, with ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ and ‘Pink Cadillac’ as well as a solo version of the title track, the date of which indicates that it was originally intended for Nebraska. It’s baffling that Springsteen was able to omit something as memorable as ‘Sad Eyes’, later a hit for Enrique Iglesias, from his 1992 albums, although his other contributions from this era are the weakest on this set. The compilation ends with its most profound moments; the Vietnam veteran of ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’, the possessed lover of ‘The Fever’, and the Springsteen archetype of ‘The Promise’, a sequel to ‘Thunder Road’ from Born To Run.
I’d take this collection of often excellent odds and sods over most of Springsteen’s post Tunnel Of Love work.
Live in New York City
Coming after a sequence of lacklustre albums in the 1990s, Live in New York City received plenty of hype, due to the return of the E Street Band. The set-list largely concentrates on Born To Run through to Nebraska and is surprisingly light on hits, opening with outtake ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ and all but skipping Born In The USA; the sole representative from the latter is a Nebraska style take on the title track.
Even if you’ve heard all of Springsteen’s studio records, Live in New York City is worth tracking down for the reinventions and new tracks. ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Youngstown’ are recast as rockers, and both out-muscle their studio counterparts, while ‘Lost In The Flood’ is more assertive than on Greetings From Asbury Park. The new songs are both worthwhile – ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ has a neat riff and the controversial ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ is a memorable account of a notorious police killing. 1970s’ classics like ‘Jungleland’, ‘Prove It All Night’, ‘Badlands’, and an unlisted ‘Born To Run’ are presented in perfect form. No matter how great the band sounds, they can’t rescue lame River songs like ‘Out In The Street’ and ‘Ramrod’, and sixteen minutes of ‘Tenth Avenue Freezeout’ isn’t as engrossing on record as it doubtless was on stage.
Springsteen and his E-Street Band can pull songs from his catalogue at will, and make them sound terrific.
Bruce Springsteen’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks was widely regarded as a return to form and a bid for renewed commercial acceptance after a low key 1990s. Lots of musicians, particularly from among Springsteen’s generation, made music inspired by the events of September 11, but living within sight of the Twin Towers (“I woke up this morning to an empty sky”), Springsteen had more of a reason to do than most.
Musically, The Rising is a reunion with the E Street Band, which is welcome, yet the results are mixed. The E-Street band is largely wasted in heady mixes that aim straight for arena rock, rather than the subtle and virtuoso arrangements that the band created on their seventies albums. And as a good as a lot of these individual songs are, The Rising overall is too long and too homogeneous in sound, with too many mid tempo anthems.
Closer ‘My City Of Ruins’, the most effective piece here, was actually written earlier in response to the decline of Springsteen’s native New Jersey, but it makes perfect sense as a closer here, with its gospel feel the fitting conclusion to a Springsteen album that’s constantly referencing faith. ‘Lonesome Day’ and the title track are both propulsive, while ‘Empty Sky’ and ‘World’s Apart’ are both darker and more off kilter. ‘Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin)’ is a successful foray into pop territory with an upbeat arrangement and accessible melody, although the forced and awkward ‘Mary’s Place’ (“we’re gonna have a party”) is the album’s obvious weak point. ‘The Fuse’ is almost experimental, at least by Springsteen’s standards, with its claustrophobic rhythms, an expression of lust that’s more urgent than most of the explicitly 9/11 songs.
The Rising feature some strong songs, and it’s Springsteen’s best studio album since Tunnel of Love, but it’s also a missed opportunity. Trimmed down to a forty minute, ten song album, with a less laboured and more identifiable E-Street Band sound, The Rising could have been exceptionally good, but even as is, after more than a decade of under-achievement it’s a respectable comeback.
Devils and Dust
I wasn’t holding much hope for Devils and Dust after hearing it described as the successor to The Ghost Of Tom Joad, but it’s both stronger and more diverse than that description would imply. The opening title track does sounds like it could have been drawn straight from The Ghost Of Tom Joad sessions, while ‘Reno’ documents a guilt ridden encounter with a prostitute. Lyrically, ‘Maria’s Bed’ is the successor to ‘Candy’s Room’ from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but it’s hooky and breezy where its ancestor was taut.
Devils And Dust may play too subtly to be a great record, and it’s probably a memorable song or two short of greatness as well, but it’s still a solid Springsteen album – exactly the kind of well written, intelligent, and subtle album that late career Springsteen should be making.
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Springsteen’s first album of covers was, appropriately, of songs collated by folk musician Pete Seeger; they reach into the American tradition, and promote the same causes of inclusiveness and equality that Springsteen’s songs champion. Even though Springsteen’s a limited vocalist, his enthusiastic growl is perfect for this music, and We Shall Overcome is a ton of fun as Springsteen is accompanied by E-Street violinist Soozie Tyrell and a band of local musicians, creating a loose and fun hoe-down atmosphere.
I hated ‘Erie Canal’ when we sang it sluggishly at primary school, but on We Shall Overcome it grooves along bouncily on its horn section. Most of We Shall Overcome album is fun, uptempo fare like ‘Old Dan Tucker’ and ‘Froggie Went A Courtin”, but the title track has a solemn gravitas that’s perfect for the song, while ‘Shenandoah’ is also slow and mournful.
As an album of covers, it’s difficult to rank We Shall Overcome over Springsteen’s best albums of original material, but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s the best studio album he’s made since Tunnel of Love in 1987.
The Promise is a collection of outtakes from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, which were released in 2010, with some overdubs and one entirely new recording. The resulting album is different in tone from Darkness – lacking the intensity of those songs, it’s more rooted in R&B and 1960s pop, and it was a wise decision to withhold this lighter for a separate project.
Considering that some material from the era already was released on the outtake collection Tracks, it’s amazing that Springsteen had enough material for another two disc set. Some of these songs were donated to other artists – ‘Because The Night’ was a hit for Patti Smith and ‘Fire’ for The Pointer Sisters. There aren’t many lost classics on The Promise, but there are an abundance of great sounding and solidly written vintage Springsteen songs. Highlights include a full band version of the title track, the Springsteen take on ‘Because The Night’, and ‘Candy’s Boy’, a companion to ‘Candy’s Room’ from Darkness.
Some of the blue eyed soul and 1960s influenced pop does blend together, but The Promise is still an amazingly solid collection of outtakes, given how long it stayed in the archives.
Ten Favourite Bruce Springsteen Songs
Incident on 57th Street
Adam Raised a Cain
Meeting Across The River
10th Avenue Freezeout
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
One Step Up
My City of Ruins
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