Thursday, 2 August 2018

Bruce Springsteen




"When I first signed Bruce Springsteen, he never moved, when he played Max's Kansas City he would just stand there" - Clive Davis

On Friday September 29, 1978, aged nineteen, I went round to my friend's parents' house. We were going to see UK reggae band Steel Pulse at Friars Club in Aylesbury. Getting ready in his bedroom, he said that before we went out I should listen to his latest reason for enthusiasm. Expecting some roots reggae or angry punk, I did as I was told and sat down, shut up and listened. The track he played me was Thunder Road. He handed me the now-iconic white gatefold sleeve in order to read the lyrics.






















He was right to have sat me down, knowing the impact this song would have. It is corny and indulgent to say that it "changed my life", but certainly it kicked off an obsession with Springsteen and his music that lasted for the next fifteen years or so, before I started to view him a bit more objectively. Since then I went on to see him him eighteen times in concert, including being in the fifth row at Stafford's Bingley Hall on May 20, 1981 for what is, along with The Clash at Friars Aylesbury in December 1978, the best live gig of my life.

These days, I have a far more relaxed attitude to Springsteen's music and find that I only listen to his music once or twice a year. I still get all his albums upon release, however, but there is no longer an obsession. Looking back, though, you simply couldn't beat that early excitement of 1978-1983, buying Born To Run, Darkness, The Wild, The Innocent, Greetings and Nebraska. Discovering just what wonderful albums they were. Walking back from my girlfriend's house in the early hours of the morning, singing Incident On 57th Street to myself from beginning to end. Wonderful memories that haven't faded at all. It all went too mainstream with the overrated (for me) Born In the USA, but man, those early recordings...

THE CLASSIC PERIOD (1973-1984)



Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. (1973)


Blinded By The Light/Growin' Up/Mary, Queen Of Arkansas/Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?/Lost In The Flood/The Angel/For You/Spirit In The Night/It's Had To Be A Saint In The City 

"He sings with a freshness and urgency I haven't heard since I was rocked by 'Like A Rolling Stone' - the album rocks, then glides, then rocks again. There is the combined sensibility of the chaser and the chaste, the street punk and the bookworm"  - Peter Knobler - Crawdaddy    

"Madmen drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat. In the dumps wih the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat..."

So begins the very first track on the very first album by Bruce Springsteen. What had we here? A "new Dylan", some of the music media, not too convincingly, proclaimed. To be honest, this is a somewhat strange, but undoubtedly unique, album of folky (sort of) rock, with a muffled drum sound and those verbose, overblown lyrics that gave only a few hints as to the megastar that Bruce Springsteen would become. Released in 1973, after several years playing small venues in his home town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, this album gained little serious attention, either in the US or in the UK. The world was interested in Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

There is some interesting material on it though, the afore-quoted wordy magnificence of Blinded By The Light (which was later a big hit for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band); the mini street anthem Growin' Up  (covered by David Bowie) and the dramatic Lost In The Flood, with its street characters the like of which populated many of Springsteen's early songs. It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City had a hard edged funk to it and was also covered by David Bowie. There was also the strange, acoustic, folky Mary Queen Of Arkansas and the bleak, haunting vocal and piano-only The Angel. All the songs have been performed in far better versions subsequently by Springsteen live.



For You, an upbeat rocking song, but about an attempted suicide, showed a maturity and sensitivity impressive in one so young. Spirit In The Night was a very typical early Springsteen song in that it featured a cast of nick-named characters - "Crazy Janey", "The Mission Man", "Wild Billy", "G-Man", "Hazy Davy" and "Killer Joe" and a captivating jazzy rock atmosphere about fun and drinking down at "Greasy Lake". The link some have made to W.B. Yeats' "Crazy Jane" poem are coincidence in my view. I am sure the young Springsteen didn't spend his time reading Yeats on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Van Morrison is a different matter, of course. Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? is a comparatively short, vaguely Latin-influenced number that occasionally still gets played live, to the delight of fans.

The album is remastered here very nicely by the experienced Bob Ludwig. The sound is excellent and much improved on all previous releases. That drum sound will always be muffled, however, just as it was on the early Southside Johnny albums.

It is pretty much impossible to categorise this album by the so-called “new Dylan”. Was it folk? Was it rock? Lots of saxophone and piano here and there gave a hint to what would become trademark E Street Band sound. Overall though, nobody really knew. It all, therefore, slipped under the radar somewhat in 1973, which was, after all, a year of some titanic albums. 

What was acknowledged, though, was that there was something in the songs of this scrawny, bearded somewhat shy, introspective young lad. He just needed to find some wings for his wheels....



The Wild, The Innocent & The E St. Shuffle (1973)


The E. St Shuffle/Sandy (4th Of July, Asbury Park)/Kitty's Back/Wild Billy's Circus Story/Incident On 57th Street/Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)/New York City Serenade

“Music that was filled with deep longing, a casually transcendent spirit, mature resignation, and … hope … hope for that girl, that moment, that place, that night when everything changes, life reveals itself to you, and you, in turn, are revealed" - Bruce Springsteen      

For many people, myself included, this album, from 1973, is up there as one of their favourite Bruce Springsteen albums.

After the somewhat half-cooked debut of 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. This saw a bit of a shift from verbose Dylanesque semi-folky stuff to more wide-ranging influences creeping in - rock n roll, Phil SpectorStax & Atlantic funk, Latin rhythms. However, Bruce still looks like a cross between Al Pacino's "Serpico" and Gil Scott-Heron on the cover. I remember seeing this album as I leafed through albums in my local record shop as a teenager in 1974 and thinking it was a laid-back "hippy" rock album and dismissing it in favour of the pompadour/glamorous images displayed on the covers of albums by BowieRoxy Music and Cockney Rebel. It would be another four years before I would be entranced by it, but when that occurred, it did so, big time. I got into it after Born To Run and Darkness as my liking for Springsteen really took off. 
                     
This album featured the first line-up of the E St. Band by the way, featuring drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez and keyboardist David Sancious. No Max Weinberg or Roy Bittan as yet. Consequently, the sound is not quite the E St. sound of subsequent years. Lopez's drumming has a rolling gait to it that differs a lot to Weinberg's powerful thump and Sancious's keyboards are inventive and maybe a bit lighter than Bittan's. 

The first track, The E St. Shuffle  is a funky number, featuring wah-wah guitar, congas and a street soul feel. It is one of those songs that is almost impossible to categorise. Sandy is a classic Springsteen dramatic ballad, packed full of atmosphere, that perfectly evokes the boardwalk summer life of Asbury Park. Its low key but melodic guitar opening sees Springsteen developing the impressive guitar style that would serve him so well over subsequent years.

Next up is Kitty's Back, an extended piece of jazzy rock with a riff that surely Boz Scaggs "borrowed" on 1977's Lido Shuffle. Again, it starts with some searing guitar from Springsteen. The album's oddity is Wild Billy's Circus Story, a rather sad tale featuring various circus characters backed by bassist Garry Tallent playing the tuba.

The old "side two" is magnificent, possible best side of music Springsteen ever recorded. Three tracks flowing into each other - the street romance of Incident On 57th Street between "Spanish Johnny" and "Puerto Rican Jane" two of those characters Springsteen delighted in creating in this era. Springsteen's guitar as the track ends is a delight, as indeed it is all the way through the track. The bit where the music stops and you get these lines is classic early Springsteen -

"...Johnny was sittin' on the fire escape, watchin' the kids play down in the street...he called down "hey little heroes, summer's long, but I guess it ain't very sweet around here anymore...". Janey sleeps in sheets damp with sweat...Johnny sits up alone and watches her dream on, dream on...and the Sister prays for lost souls, then breaks down in the chapel after everyone's gone..."

That is early Springsteen encapsulated in one block of verse - the heat of the summer, the forlorn hope, the false street "heroism", the hope, the dreams, all topped off with a bit of Catholicism too. 

Then, as if it couldn't get any better, we get the tour de force that is Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), a frenetic, Latin-influenced stormer of a rock track that is still a concert favourite. The part where Incident... suddenly becomes Rosalita as the guitar kicks in is simply magical. I remember seeing him perform this on The Old Grey Whistle Test and being just blown away.

Finally comes the jazz-tinged epic of New York City Serenade. There is a fair case for the latter track being the finest piece of music Springsteen ever composed. For me, this is the the summery, street romanticism that serves as the very essence of Bruce Springsteen.  I could make a fair case for this being his best ever album, even over Born To Run or Darkness. There is a slight imperfection to its instrumentation and recordings, clunky piano pedals clearly audible at times, but there is a loose, enthusiastic, excitable energy that you could almost say was never truly caught on record again. Seven impressive and different tracks that make this a completely unique album within the Springsteen canon.

It is just a pleasure from beginning to end. Well remastered by the experienced Bob Ludwig. Give me this over Born In The USA any day.

The pick of the non-album tracks recorded for this album but ultimately discarded are the sprawling, shapeless but strangely atmospheric Santa Ana; the instrumental end-of-pier-pier organ-driven fun of Seaside Bar Song; the wonderful street drama of Zero And Blind Terry and the lengthy anthemic, rocking Thundercrack. The latter two tracks would have must the album an absolute classic, I think.




 

Born To Run (1975)


Thunder Road/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Night/Backstreets/Born To Run/She's The One/Meeting Across The River/Jungleland 

"I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" - Jon Landau           

This was Bruce Springsteen’s shot at the big time, after more years gigging than people may have thought and a couple of impressive but not particularly well-known albums. He saw this as pretty much his last chance at meaningful success. Together with producer Jon Landau, who was responsible for hyping Springsteen up with his now legendary quote and the newly-revamped E St Band )in to the line up that was the most well-known), he merged a full-on “wall of sound” musical backdrop with his romantic, optimistic yet at times fatalistic lyrics. His songs were often character-driven - “street operas”, featuring an array of names like “Magic Rat”, “Barefoot Girl” and various other non-nickname ones but heavily featured, such as “Mary”, "Wendy", "Terry" and “Eddie”. The imagery in his songs was almost cinematic. You could see the characters, feel the “soft summer rain”.  It really was a masterful piece of work. Hard to know how it could be bettered, certainly musically and lyrically.
                                                 
It was painstaking in its creation, however, with Springsteen frustrated at his "having sounds in his head that he just could not explain to the members of the band". He brought in Jon Landau as producer, a relationship that would continue on after this, and this helped, and the final product would seem to be pretty much perfect, apart from possibly one thing - the sound. 

 

Despite all the album's many good points, the reproduced sound quality, (as opposed to the actual music) however, has always let the album down slightly in my opinion. It is, however many remasters are done, always somewhat muffled and tinny. For some, though, therein lies its appeal, almost like a “back to mono” thing. I would just like to have heard it sound better, although I appreciate now that will never happen.





                   
Thunder Road is a candidate for Bruce Springsteen’s most iconic song of all time (yes, that includes Born To Run). This five minute slice of sweeping hymnal majesty sees killer lyrics meshing with a huge piano, harmonica and saxophone backing, and, (for one of the only times in rock music), a glockenspiel, a sound that just blows one away. “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win”. Indeed. 

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is an inspirational, Stax-influenced slab of rock and soul that describes the initial meeting between Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons - “the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band”. A concert favourite for many years, with its singalong horn parts proving ideal in that respect.


Night - this song's machine gun drum attack ushers in this frantic “wall of sound” rocker that tells of a blue collar working guy waiting for his weekend night out, a common theme in Springsteen’s mid 70s/early 80s output. "Get to work late and the boss man's giving you hell..." was an archetypal line from this era, working hard all day for the relief of the night. Musically, Clarence Clemons' saxophone dominates the song. It is a relatively short number but it packs one hell of a punch and fits in well with the album's overall ambience.

Backstreets - this lengthy, slightly sombre number is a bleak organ and guitar driven lament and a final climax repeats the line “hiding on the backstreets” many, many times. It doesn’t detract from it though, and the song is most evocative and atmospheric - the line "sleeping in that old abandoned beach house, getting wasted in the heat..." perfectly exemplifies it.

Born To Run - now we get the "one everyone knows". No introduction needed. Session drummer ’s rattling drum introduction sends us speeding down the freeway in search of a “runaway American dream” with Wendy in the passenger seat. The youthful optimism of Born To Run lives forever. We will always know that love is wild and love is real. 

She's The One is an infectious, shuffling Bo Diddley/“Mona” groove backs the album’s most obviously romantic track. It contains a supreme saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons at the end. The  atmospheric Meeting Across The River provides a distinct change in mood. Jazzy trumpet backs a mournful Springsteen vocal concerning the tribulations of a small time criminal and his hope he will “throw that money on the bed”. This is the often-forgotten song of the album and makes for an interesting listen because of it.

Finally, the album ends with a true Bruce classic, JunglelandIt is the album’s A Day In The Life. A monumental closer, an atmospheric slow-building piano intro, a great guitar solo and Clemons’ extended jazzy saxophone solo before Springsteen’s poetic finale. "The poets down here don't write nothing at all" - an overblown lyric in many ways, but all of these type of lines just suit this album perfectly.

A nod to the iconic nature of the cover too. Unbelievable as it sounds, in 1975, a white man and a black man together in friendship on the cover was not a regular occurrence. The phots are by Eric Meola

In comparison with most of Springsteen's other albums there were only two songs recorded during the sessions for this album that didn't make it, firstly Linda Let Me Be The One, which is one of my absolute favourite Springsteen non-album "rejects". It is a marvellous piece of Spectoresque majesty, with an infectious Be My Baby beat and piano refrain. It is a street romance song about characters Linda and Eddie, the sort of thing he did so well in this period, with lyrics about "the midnight boys""angels in defeat" and "empty homes and broken hearts". I love everything about it and feel that it would have made an ideal addition to the album, coming after She's The One, maybe.

Secondly, So Young And In Love was a vibrant, saxophone-driven rock 'n' roller with a bit of a funky soul guitar line underpinning it. Clarence Clemons's saxophone roars out throughout the song and the feel is a bit like that heard on The E St Shuffle, but much faster, with shades of Kitty's Back too. Max Weinberg's drums pound and roll all the way along. It is a lively, fun number, possibly too much so for a final inclusion on the album.



Live At Hammersmith Odeon (1975)


Thunder Road/Tenth Avenue Freeze Out/Spirit in The Night/Lost in The Flood/She's The One/
Born To Run/The E St. Shuffle/It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City/Backstreets/Kitty's Back/Jungleland/Rosalita/4th July Asbury Park (Sandy)/Detroit Medley - Devil With A Blue Dress On/See See Rider/Good Golly Miss Molly/ Jenny Take A Ride/For You/Quarter To Three

"The decision to label me as the 'future of rock' was a very big mistake and I would like to strangle the guy who thought that up" - Bruce Springsteen

Recorded live in 1975

This was Bruce Springsteen's first tour of Europe and this was the first gig of that tour. The British music press had hyped it up with the now legendary "finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen" posters, which the artist himself allegedly went around tearing them down wherever he came across one. By his own admittance, this hype had led to he and the band being as nervous as they could be when they stepped out on to the wooden Hammersmith stage boards on November 18 1975. Despite that, it does not show in the sound, or in the actual performance, although Springsteen does his level best to look completely incongruous by wearing a huge tea-cosy woolly hat and sporting an Al Pacino as "Serpico" style beard. He hardly looked like the "future of rock 'n' roll" as journalist and future manager Jon Landau had dubbed him after this gig. Springsteen himself has never been too happy about this show, preferring the return one on November 24.

It is an excellent live album though, with surprisingly good sound quality considering its date. Outstanding in fact. There is a very convincing argument for this being Springsteen's best official live album. Certainly it is as far as I am concerned.


After a slow, piano-based opener in Bruce's contemporary version of Thunder Road, the band kick in to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and it is clear this is going to be something special. Springsteen shows his influences by including several brief "hint" snippets of rock classics in various songs during the set. Many of the songs are lengthy, extended versions, with the E St. Band on fire and you have to say that nobody had really done anything like this before. This was 1975 and this was nothing like David BowieLed ZeppelinElton John or Queen. Springsteen was taking rock 'n' roll romanticism and musical history and updating it to the present day, but it was far more than simply a revivalist show, it was definitely pushing boundaries. The white soul dreams of David Bowie's 1974 David Live are taken even further on the saxophone-driven Spirit In The Night and The E St. Shuffle is almost reminiscent of Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now from the same year. Like Morrison on that album, this is a singer in complete harmony with his band, while simultaneously controlling them like a general. This album is up there with Morrison's as examples of ground-breaking live offerings from the period. Indeed, the lengthy piano improvisation in the middle of Kitty's Back owes more than just a little inspiration to Morrison's Moondance. On this track, as on others like E St. Shuffle and It's Hard To Be Saint In The City, there are considerable jazz influences, a bit of funk in there on the latter, too.

It is a bit strange listening to the album now and realising that Born To Run, played at sixth track in, was just another track off the new album, which had been released three months previously. It was not the show-stopper it would be on the next tour, three years later. The dramatic Lost In The Flood from Springsteen's debut album, seems to get a better audience reception. Not surprising, though, as it's great.

The ad hoc feeling of the encores Detroit Medley and Gary US BondsQuarter To Three is simply energising and exhilarating, even now. This was Springsteen at his most essential, raw and unpolished. For me, this is the best of him. 1975-1978. You can't beat those years.



Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)


Badlands/Adam Raised a Cain/Something In The Night/Candy's Room/Racing In The Street/The Promised Land/Factory/Streets Of Fire/Prove It All Night/Darkness On The Edge Of Town 

"You're born with nothing and better off that way. Soon as you get something they send someone to try and take it away" 
     
As Bruce Springsteen has stated many times in interview, by 1978, both himself and the characters in his songs had grown up and were now in their late twenties/early thirties, the breathless, energetic youthful optimism of Born To Run had been depressingly replaced by a cast iron reality. All that they could look forward to now was a life of more responsibility, struggle and ultimate disillusion. Such seemingly dour sentiments produced, in my opinion, Bruce Springsteen's great album.

Remember, also, that in 1978, Bruce Springsteen was, certainly in the UK, still very much a "cult" artist that no-one knew quite what to make of, looking like a cross between Elvis in 1968 comeback era and The Fonz from Happy Days. Punk was at its height. Was he a punk? Well, he wore a leather jacket, but his were extended rock songs, not two minute thrashes. No matter, the punks, all too eager to dismiss "boring old farts" seemed to respect Springsteen. Everyone did, whether they liked him or not, indeed, whether they had heard his music or not. He just seemed credible.

 
      
Max Weinberg's drum roll introduces this searing tub thumper of a Springsteen anthem in the opener, the bombastic Badlands. Full of lyrics concerning the everyday struggle of the ordinary man over a strangely uplifting musical backing - great guitar riffs, pounding drums and, of course, Clarence Clemons' soaring mid-song saxophone solo. Springsteen opens his soul and makes his sentiments clear - "I wanna spit in the face of those Badlands". In many ways he still saw himself as a struggler - banned from recording for three years due to a protracted lawsuit, he was certainly not yet the superstar he became. At this point he didn't know whether he would make it into a career that would last a lifetime or not. So, Badlands was, at the time, not the rant of a comfortable multi-millionnaire.

Adam Raised A Cain is a blistering, bass heavy, guitar-dominated bleak song that has often been forgotten about. When I first got in to the album, back in 1978, this was the one track that I never really liked. Now, it is one of my favourites. It has taken all those years to grow on me.

The passionately delivered slow burner, Something In the Night contains few lines that are the very essence of this album - "you're born with nothing and better off that way. Soon as you get something they send someone to try and take it away". It speaks for itself.



Candy's Room is a frenetic rocker that emerged from a demo entitled Candy's Boy, which is much slower and soulful and, to be honest is the better song. The pace never lets up on this though, with some searing guitar from Springsteen and excellent drums from Weinberg.

The monumental Racing In The Street is the album's funereal, fugue-like cornerstone about broken dreams, shattered hopes and just struggling on through an unforgiving life with that old fire still burning in your veins, somewhere, somehow. The song takes the joyous refrain from Martha And The VandellasMotown hit, Dancing In The Street and turns it into something much darker - about the teenage street racer, now grown up, with new, taxing responsibilities, yearning desperately for one more big race, just like the old days, the days of Brian Wilson's Don't Worry Baby. This time, though, the racer doesn't come home to a loving, welcoming proud girl who said "baby when you race today just take along my love with you", he comes back to an exhausted, disillusioned woman who "stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born".

The magnificent, stark piano/organ/drum/guitar extended instrumental ending to the song seems to musically sum up the bleakness of it all. However, as with many Springsteen songs, there is always a tiny hint of redemption with the lines "tonight my baby and me, we're gonna ride to the sea, and wash those sins off our hands".

The tribulations and struggles of the working life are back again on  The Promised Land, driving off alone on a "rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert". Again, though, there is that spirit of hope - "mister I ain't a boy, now I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land". Great harmonica from Springsteen and saxophone from Clemons.

The short Factory is one of my favourites. A simple backing and a sad, plaintive vocal concerning the drab lives of factory workers. "You'd just better believe boy, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight". It never got much darker. It's just the working life. We've all been there - factory, office, hospital, railway. Everyone can relate to this.

Streets Of Fire has a growling, impassioned vocal over a bleak organ backing introduces this grinding, industrial song of defeat and disillusion. The atmosphere is lifted just a little with the upbeat romantic rocker,  Prove It All Night. It is performed much more convincingly in concert around this same era (1978) with an extended Springsteen guitar intro and solo in the middle, showing just what a good guitarist he actually is, something that is often forgotten. Many think of him as just a singer.

For the closing Darkness On The Edge Of Town, however, the bleakness is back now, big time. However hopeful one may be about this and that, however hard you work, however hard you try, there is always a "darkness on the edge of town", basically a darkness lurking in the soul of all of us.

There were lots of non-album rejected tracks from this album's sessions and also from 1977's hiatus period - River-style rockers like RendezvousGive The Girl A KissBring On The NightSo Young And In Love and the excellent Don't Look Back; sombre numbers like the bleak IcemanSouthside Johnny-covered romantic ones like Hearts Of Stone and the bluesy, smoky vibe of The Fever and the epic piano-driven, moving ballad The Promise, that really should have been on the album, possible with Iceman too.



The River (1980)


The Ties That Bind/Sherry Darling/Jackson Cage/Two Hearts/Independence Day/Hungry Heart/Out In The Street/Crush On You/You Can Look (But You'd Better Not Touch)/I Wanna Marry You/The River/Point Blank/Cadillac Ranch/I'm A Rocker/Fade Away/Stolen Car/Ramrod/The Price You Pay/Drive All Night/Wreck On The Highway 

"The songs lacked the kind of unity and conceptual intensity I liked my music to have" - Bruce Springsteen

Released in 1980, before Bruce Springsteen had truly broken “big” (certainly in the UK) and when punk, new wave and two tone were the popular genres, this slightly bloated double album of Searchers/Byrds-style guitar-driven rock actually turned to do pretty well. Tracks like Hungry Heart and The River have proved to be durable in their appeal. It is still an enjoyable double album listen despite there being just a little bit of “filler” in there. Strangely, there are many, many superior tracks to be found on retrospective collections of unreleased material that Springsteen unaccountably rejected from the final album at the time. Having said, just listen to the energy and commitment that those "filler" tracks, like Crush On YouYou Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) or I'm A Rocker are given and you realise that there is "filler" and there is "Springsteen filler". Check out the sax on the former or the fairground organ on the latter for starters.

I remember buying this album while studying in Canterbury, in October 1980, full of excitement. It didn't let me down simply because of the sheer wealth of material on the album. This was Springsteen's London Calling. Looking at it in retrospect, though, it is certainly inferior to the three albums that came before it, for me. Indeed Springsteen dismissed the first, single album version of the album saying that its songs lacked "unity and conceptual intensity". So - he then put out a sprawling double album. 

As someone who has lived with Springsteen’s music since 1978 and has been lucky enough to see him live on eighteen occasions, I have to say that I have always had a big problem with the sound on this album. This latest remaster, by the vastly experienced Bob Ludwig, does the job as best as he can, and it certainly sounds as good as it has ever done. However, no amount of remastering will repair the tinny, treble-heavy sound that the original recording had. Bob Ludwig’s work thankfully realises that Garry Tallent played bass on this album and finally we are allowed to hear him, particularly on the slower, bassier tracks like Point BlankThe RiverI Wanna Marry YouIndependence Day and Fade Away. As I said, this is the best I have heard the album so far, easily. It makes it a better listen by far but it still doesn’t paper over all the cracks.

   
                              
Springsteen, never the master of the studio, intended to capture a sixties jangly guitar sound on many of the tracks, so fair enough, but the original recording’s production did leave a lot to be desired. Just my opinion. I still love so many of the songs. The upbeat, jangly rock of The Ties That Bind, the fairground-style fun of Sherry Darling, the sheer emotion of Independence Day, the rock n roll good time of Out On The Street and Cadillac Ranch (pictured below), the yearning, evocative The Price You Pay and the extended promises of undying love of Drive all Night. Killer saxophone solo in the latter, too. Not forgetting the Drifters meets Mink De Ville on a street corner soul of I Wanna Marry You. Or the beautiful bleakness of Point Blank (possibly the album's best track). The rocking beat of Ramrod. Lots of good stuff. However, one listen to the “rejects” from these sessions to be found on the “Tracks” box set makes one question Springsteen’s choices. There again, he’s “The Boss”, so he gets away with it.

Stolen Car, for example is nowhere near as good on this album as it is on the original version from the album's recording sessions (see below). Tracks like Two HeartsI'm A Rocker, Crush On You or Fade Away could easily have been replaced by several from those featured below. However, the familiar strains of The River and Hungry Heart have made themselves pretty irreplaceable, although neither of them are my favourites. Finally, there is the tragic, moving Wreck In The Highway that ends this sprawling album on a sombre note. Maybe this wasn't such a good time album after all, there is still a now trademark darkness running through it. It is those tracks that re-summon the spirit of Darkness On The Edge Of Town that are the unspoken cornerstones of this apparently high-spirited album - Point BlankThe Price You PayStolen CarIndependence DayJackson Cage.



The River Sessions - Extras

  

Bruce Springsteen's late 1979/early to mid 1980 sessions for The River album produced mountains of unused tracks. The double album was originally intended to be a ten track single release. The first ten tracks below were those chosen. It would have been an ok album, but certainly not as good as the eventual double release and also would have suffered in comparison to its illustrious predecessor, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

The original selections for "The River" album:-

The Ties That Bind (1979)/Cindy (1979)/Hungry Heart (1980)/Stolen Car (1980)/Be True (1980)/The River (1979)/You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) (1979)/The Price You Pay (1979)/I Wanna Marry You (1979/1980)/Loose Ends (1979)

The "River" sessions previously unreleased tracks:-

Meet Me In The City (1979)/The Man Who Got Away (1979)/Little White Lies (1979)/The Time That Never Was (1979)/Night Fire (1979)/Whitetown (1980)/Chain Lightning (1979/1980)/Party Lights (1979)/Paradise By The "C" (1978)/Stray Bullet (1980)/Mr. Outside  (1980)

"River" sessions tracks that previously appeared on the "Tracks" box set:-

Roulette (1980)/Restless Nights (1980)/Where The Bands Are (1979)/Dollhouse (1979)/Living On The Edge Of The World (1979)/Take 'Em As They Come (1980)/Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own (1979)/I Wanna Be With You (1979)/Mary Lou (1979)/Held Up Without A Gun (1980)/From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) (1979)


The Ties That Bind. Apart from a few vocal inflections this sounds pretty much like the version that eventually appeared on the album. To my ears, this version sounds a bit bassier, but maybe that is just me. It is a tiny bit hissier in places.

Cindy is a mid-pace romantic number with echoes of Buddy Holly and a Crickets-style guitar solo. It is not particularly special and doesn't really merit inclusion on the eventual album. Hungry Heart sounds very similar to the final version, if not exactly the same.

Stolen Car. This is here in its longer, and in my view superior version, full of delicious piano and big, heavy bass. Springsteen's vocal is great on this, gently backed by a fetching accordion from Danny Federici. The bit near the end when you just get his vocal, keyboards and piano for a while is wonderful. Garry Tallent's bass dominates and rightly so. This would have been one of the original album's centrepoints, one we all would have talked about, however, the version that appeared on the double album was only half as good as this one.

Be True is an infectious, lively rocker that eventually appeared as the 'b' side of Sherry Darling. This version seems slightly different to that one. It has a less strong vocal. The 'b' side version appears on the Tracks box set. It is a track that deserved to be on the double album, in place of material like Crush On You or I'm A Rocker, for me.

 

The River is not much different. Again, it seems to have a warmer bass line.

A track that is considerably different, though, is You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) which is far more rockabilly in its rhythm and guitar sound. I prefer this one, it has a loose, bassy swing to it. The album's other classic number would have been The Price You Pay, which features here with a completely different second verse to its eventual incarnation. The Spectoresque  I Wanna Marry You is almost identical to the final version.

Loose Ends appeared later on Tracks with a few minor changes. This is another good track inexplicably omitted from the final product. Although I like the song, I do not revere it as many Springsteen aficionados seem to do.

Then we get the tracks that didn't make either album. A lot of these tracks date from early to mid 1979 and have quite a different feel to them to a lot of the ones from 1980. They are edgier, tougher and more piano-driven. There is a homogenous sameiness about them, however, a sort of rocky, new wave-influenced sound that finds me having trouble differentiating between them, no matter how many listens. On many of them, despite not being bad tracks at all, the hooks aren't there. Had these been released as the album instead of those that were chosen, the reaction to it and its subsequent place in Springsteen history would have been completely different. Although many of them are musically and lyrically superior to some of those eventually chosen for the album, you can understand why Springsteen opted for the hookier numbers, to an extent.

Meet Me In The City is a lively, piano-driven rocker that has early hints of 2008's Radio Nowhere in places. It was resurrected as a show opener for Springsteen's The River tour in 2016. It has a killer Clarence Clemons saxophone solo. Again, it is a far superior song to some of those rockers that appeared on The RiverThe Man Who Got Away is a pounding, drum-powered number with similarities to Roulette. It contains some Elvis Costello & The Attractions-style organ breaks.

The fast-paced rocker, Little White Lies sounds a lot like Graham Parker, who Springsteen was recording with at around the same time.

The Time That Never Was has a big, Spector style drum beat and a mournful Springsteen vocal over a throbbing bass line a sonorous backing vocals. It is a track with potential, but some of the vocal parts are a bit indistinct. A great saxophone solo lifts it high up, however.

Night Fire features Roy Bittan's piano prominently. It is another with that Roulette vibe to it. Very much the sound of Springsteen circa early/mid 1979.

Now we move on to 1980 with Whitetown and you can tell, for there is far more of a River-sound to it, with vague hints of I Wanna Marry You lurking in its otherwise dense-ish melody. This is one of the first songs to find Springsteen trying out his falsetto vocal that he would come to use more in later years.

Chain Lightning starts with a bass riff like Nebraska's State Trooper. The track's menacing, bluesy groove is something quite different to anything else from this period. There are a few bits that sound like 1984's Pink Cadillac. It is a big grinder of a track. Clemons's saxophone is far more beguiling than his usual bullhorn blare.

Party Lights is a return to that jangly Searchers-style guitar-driven rock that featured on The Ties That Bind. Some of the lyrics from Point Blank and vague references to the lyrics of Sherry Darling turn up in here.

Paradise By The "C" is a jaunty rock'n'roll saxophone-powered instrumental that is known to those who bought the "Live 1975-1985" box set, as it was performed on there. From April 1980 is the quietly sad and brooding Stray Bullet, enhanced by some excellent evocative,  jazzy tenor saxophone. The bass/piano/guitar/saxophone bit near the end is superb. This is one of the first sombre songs that Springsteen had done. Iceman and Meeting Across The River being others. Subsequent years would find him doing many more. This was a really good track and should have appeared on an album.

Mr. Outside is the only track that has that raw "demo" acoustic feel to it. It is a lively Paul Simon-esque number that we will never get to hear in a full band version.

Photo below © Joel Bernstein.






On to the songs that previously appeared on TracksRoulette contains some of Max Weinberg's finest rolling drum sounds. It is an intense song about the perils of nuclear power. Restless Nights is a similar song to Loose Ends in some ways, with a strong piano, drum and bass backing. It is pretty typical of Springsteen's 1980 rock output. Danny Federici' s organ solo is excellent. Where The Bands Are is a 1979 out-and-out fun rocker with a bit of a The Ties That Bind feel to it. Clarence Clemons contributes a typically rousing saxophone solo. Another frantic Searchers-riffy rocker is Dollhouse which is absolutely packed full of energy. Similarly ebullient is the very enjoyable Living On The Edge Of The World. Some lyrics appeared later on Nebraska's State Trooper and Open All Night. It is one of Springsteen's fastest tracks, the pace just doesn't let up.

Take 'Em As They Come is a regular pace rocker that has never particularly stuck in my mind. It is in the style as a lot of this material - dominated by its jangly guitar riff and Weinberg's gunshot drum rolls. Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own is a slightly amusing fast rock 'n' roll number about a teenage girl growing up driven along by some rocking organ and piano. I Wanna Be With You has its origins back in 1977 but finally got properly recorded in 1979. It has a guitar/drum/piano stomping intro that was successfully used as a show opener on the 1999 E St. Band Reunion Tour. Once again, it is a solid song that more than deserved an album place.

Mary Lou is an early version of Be True which doesn't quite flow as cohesively as its eventual replacement. It is still not a bad song, though, and I have always liked it. Held Up Without A Gun is a short, punky rocker that appeared as the 'b' side to the Hungry Heart single. It last just over a minute and is Springsteen's shortest ever song. From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) is a rockabilly song that Dave Edmunds covered. It is a lively bassy number full of good rockin'.

Also floating around from the same period are two sombre numbers in A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Wages Of Sin. These two may have put a different complexion on the eventual album had they been used.

As I have said before, how some of this material could be rejected is a never-ending mystery. There is some real quality stuff here. I guess the fact that I have written more about these tracks than those that comprised the original album has to say something.



Nebraska (1982)


Nebraska/Atlantic City/Mansion On The Hill/Johnny 99/Highway Patrolman/State Trooper/Used Cars/Open All Night/My Father's House/Reason To Believe 

"I'm gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin' 'em, then I'll teach 'em to the band" - Bruce Springsteen         

After the somewhat bloated, rock 'n' roll-influenced exercise of The River, in 1982, Springsteen stripped literally everything back to basics and recorded this marvellously evocative album of songs in an upstairs room of an old house, with only his acoustic guitar and a tape recorder for company. It came as something of a shock to both long time fans and new-found ones alike as it was an acoustic, dark folk album with not a drum beat or saxophone anywhere within earshot although its brutally stark atmosphere and meaningful, socially-aware lyrics soon made it popular with Springsteen connoisseurs. For some it is his best album. There are convincing arguments to be made that suggest that in this album's pensive, often fatalistic, doom-laden sentiments can be found the very quintessential Bruce Springsteen.
                 
Showing the artists's willingness to record what he wanted to and hang the commercial consequences, it is a remarkable collection of songs bleakly narrated in the first person, often delivered in the slightly deferential "sir" or "mister" form of addressing the listener, from a succession of characters (it seems) from America's "Badlands" (Nebraska), criminals (Johnny 99), honest working guys gone wrong (State Trooper), cops (Highway Patrolman), husbands (Open All Night), gamblers (Atlantic City), nostalgics (Mansion On The Hill) and no hopers (Reason To Believe). They are all there, telling their largely sad stories personalised by Springsteen's quiet, yearning delivery. There was also personal family nostalgia in the moving Used Cars and the less personal, more dream-inspired My Father's House This was Springsteen's "great American novel". The lyrics and the imagery are that good. I could quote line after line but in the interest of brevity I will simply say that one listen to the songs will suffice to invite them into your bloodstream and, despite the apparent despondent pessimism expressed in many of the songs, there is also a redemptive faith at the end of even the most trying day that gives us a reason to believe. Characters such as the protagonists of Highway Patrolman, Used Cars and Reason To Believe personify this innate goodness and reassuring belief.



Songs like Highway PatrolmanUsed Cars,  My Father's HouseMansion On The Hill and Atlantic City are up there with some of the best songs Springsteen has ever written. No question. If you want tub-thumping anthems, you certainly won't get them here. This album will not lift your spirits, but it will certainly make you think. It is also important to remember that it was recorded at a time when there was a contemporary popular music culture of synthesiser-dominated pop and ostentatious costumes with floopy hair to match. Here we had a hard-hitting folk album that was in complete contrast to anything else put out at the time. This was no Culture Club, Duran Duran or Michael Jackson offering. It was also a year into Ronald Reagan's economically harsh presidency and the songs' baleful messages were ones of not much hope, its unlucky, downtrodden and sometimes feckless characters the same - the people that "Reaganomics" would trample all over. 

Musically, Although the acoustic vibe is a nost evocative one, I would love to hear a “full band” version of all these songs, though. When played live with such arrangements, they have invariably been excellent. Indeed Springsteen said that "I'm gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin' 'em, then I'll teach 'em to the band".

Tracks that didn't make it on to the album but were recorded at its sessions were the original, slow bottleneck blues strains of Born In The USA (a completely different type of song to its eventual incarnation); a short, evocative Elvis Presley tribute in Johnny Bye Bye and a service veteran's nightmare in the stark Shut Out The Light.



Born In The USA (1984)


Born In The USA/Cover Me/Darlington County/Working On The Highway/Downbound Train/I'm On Fire/No Surrender/Bobby Jean/I'm Goin' Down/Glory Days/Dancing In The Dark/My Hometown

"The title track more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I've always had some ambivalence" - Bruce Springsteen
          
This was the big one, the one that, unfortunately for those of us that still viewed Springsteen as a "cult" artist, saw his albums sitting in the record collections of those whose only other albums were ThrillerBrother In Arms and Face Values. This horrified me. For this reason I have never had much time for this album. Somewhat unfair, I know. Even now, looking back on it, it is certainly no classic, by any means. It is simply twelve radio friendly rock songs of varying potency and quality. It is not the glory of Born To Run, the streetwise romance of The Wild, The Innocent & The E St Shuffle, the angry hopelessness of Darkness On The Edge Of Town or most certainly not the haunting melancholy of  Nebraska, by any stretch of the imagination. Not at all. 

For many, however, this was their first introduction to the wonderful artist that is Bruce Springsteen, and therefore it has a real emotional meaning for them. I understand that completely. For me, though, I was seven years down the line and viewed its appearance and almighty success somewhat differently. Just a personal thing. Yes, some of the tracks did it for me, but many of them, if I was honest, were a bit underwhelming. There was nothing remotely like BadlandsJunglelandIncident On 57th Street or Racing In The Street on here. Compare those gargantuan tracks with the somewhat banal ordinariness of Cover Me or, for me, the pop fluff of Dancing In The Dark - the difference is seismic. Another important point became obvious many years later, upon the release of the Tracks box set in 1998. I realised then just how much quality material Springsteen had left off this album. Like Dylan, Springsteen made some positively awful choices when it came to track selection. For example, This Hard Land or Brothers Under The Bridges didn't make it, yet Cover Me and I'm Going Down did. 

                      
After the acoustic bleakness of Nebraska, Springsteen brought the E St. Band back to provide a full on backing, and a much fuller, richer one than the tinny sound of The River. This is unashamedly a commercial, rock album. From the bombastic, anthemic, but often totally misunderstood Born In The USA (the bottleneck blues original would have put the point over far more convincingly, with no ambiguity) to the rockabilly fun of Working On The Highway and the cowbell riff-driven Darlington County to the bleakness of I'm On Fire and My Hometown, there is still some enjoyable stuff on here. That said, I have reiterate (at the risk of repeating myself) that it is nowhere near the album that Darkness On The Edge Of Town is, absolutely nowhere near.

My own personal favourite is the rousing guitar and drum attack of No Surrender and the sax and piano singalong Bobby Jean has a Spectoresque/Clarence Clemons sax solo appeal, very typical E St. Band. Downbound Train has a dark message to it, worthy of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. It is probably the album's bleakest track and stands alone from most of the good-time rock of much of the rest of it, with its lyrics about losing a job and a girl and getting "laid off down at the lumber yard". While No Surrender is my favourite, Downbound Train is probably the album's standout track in terms of Springsteen credibility, with the familiar honest working man character who "had a job, had a girl..." now finding himself metaphorically on that downbound train to no future, staring off into space.

However, two of its most popular tracks, Dancing In The Dark and Glory Days have never done much for me. The latter a somewhat embarrassing lament for days gone by that were probably never as glorious as the protagonist makes them sound. (Admittedly, that is the whole point of the song). Neither have the rock-by-numbers tracks like Cover Me and I'm Goin' Down. I would definitely put the previous six albums ahead of this one.

For many, though, this is his best album, so who am I to disagree?

Maybe the last word on it should go to Springsteen himself, who has expressed some mixed feelings about the album, feeling that Nebraska contained some of his strongest songwriting, while this album did not necessarily follow suit -

"...The title track more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I've always had some ambivalence."

Take a look at the tracks that were rejected from the album's sessions a consider what the album may have sounded like - three copper-bottomed classics in the atmospheric This Hard Land, the lengthy, melodramatic Frankie and the typical E. St rock of Brothers Under The Bridges '83; some mid-pace, melodic numbers in Lion's DenCar WashMan At The Top and Rockaway The Days; some solid rock in My Love Will Not Let You DownCynthia, the witty, self-deprecating TV Movie and the rollicking Stand On It and a couple of excellent 'b' sides in the bluesy grind of Pink Cadillac and the catchy rock of Janey Don't You Lose Heart. In fact, that lot would make up a fine alternative album, and, for me, a better one.



Tracks Box Set



Previously unreleased material from 1972-1995

The incredible thing about this excellent box set from Bruce Springsteen is that these are all songs that he rejected from albums that he released between 1973 and 1995. The quality of many of the tracks is simply outstanding, and, in a similar way to that in which one questions Bob Dylan, you find yourself thinking “how could he have left that one off the album, yet put on x, y or z?” Another perplexing thing about the collection is that it has been spectacularly remastered to a standard that some of the original albums simply have not been (even, in some cases, after the 2014 Bob Ludwig series of general excellent remasters). I am thinking in particular about The River. Even master remasterer Ludwig could not do much with the tinny material on this album, yet, the rejects from the sessions for that album are remastered here excellently - big, full, thumping and bassy. The sound is a revelation. The quality of sound throughout this box set is the best on all of Springsteen’s released studio material. All the tracks, though, are “rejects”, which is bizarre.

Disc One.

The set begins with for acoustic demos from 1972 and, although interesting in that they gained Springsteen his first recording contract, they are probably the least essential amongst the riches that are on offer here. Funnily enough, the next track after them is the appalling Bishop Danced, which is up there as a contender for Springsteen’s worst ever track. Thereafter though, it is quality all the way. Early highlights are the extended, joyous rock of Thundercrack (does he say "boss time" in the middle?); the wonderful street anthem Zero And Blind Terry; the gorgeous, Spectoresque Linda Let Me Be The One and the end of the pier fairground fun of Seaside Bar Song, with its strident saxophone. It has the line “the highway is alive tonight” that would be used much later on 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Not forgetting the melodious, bass and organ Latin majesty of 1973’s Santa Ana.

Next up sees the good time rock of Rendezvous and Give The Girl A Kiss and Springsteen’s original recordings of tracks made famous by Southside Johnny in The Fever and Hearts Of Stone. I am adding the three extra tracks from the shortened 18 Tracks compilation here. The wonderful The Promise is just sombre, hopeful, sad and uplifting, all at once. One of Springsteen’s best evocative tracks of all time. The rocker Don’t Look Back is a corker, too. The enigmatic, bass-thumping, atmospheric Iceman also contains some lyrics that ended up on Badlands.

Disc Two 

has many excellent tracks from The River sessions that would have graced that album - the tender A Good Man Is Hard To Find; the fabulous rocker piano-driven Loose Ends, the frenetic, ecologically-motivated Roulette; the lively Living On The Edge Of The World; the classic E. St rock of Be True and the far superior version of Stolen Car to the one that was eventually used. All seriously good stuff. You can virtually make a River 2 album out of this lot which would more than compete with the original. Oh, and there’s I Wanna Be With You which is a knockout as well. This is something that just doesn’t stop giving. What about the mournful Wages Of Sin as well.

Disc Three 

has many more gold medal contenders from the Born In The USA and Nebraska sessions - the short but lovely Johnny Bye Bye, the original bottleneck blues of Born In The USA (so different from the one everyone knows); the magnificent Frankie with its trademark Clarence Clemons saxophone at the end; the rockabilly boogie that is Stand On It and the sheer emotive exhilaration of This Hard LandBrothers Under The Bridge (83) is just archetypal E. St Band, why it was left off in favour of tracks like Cover Me or I’m Going’ Down is beyond my comprehension. Man At The Top is catchily appealing too.

Disc Four 

sees us reach the more folky, understated material of the early/mid nineties. It is not quite the sheer, effervescent joy that the previous three discs have brought, but there are still many gems - the underrated, riffy rocker Leavin' Train; the blistering rock of Seven Angels; the sad and starkly soulful Gave It A Name; the sombre, bleak Goin’ Cali'; the bluesy rock of Trouble River and one of the best saved until last - the glorious, romantic Back In Your Arms.

Overall, a fantastic collection of material from this iconic artist who never disappoints. My top five from the set? ThundercrackLinda Let Me Be The OneThe PromiseThis Hard Land and Brothers Under The Bridge (83).

TIME FOR A CHANGE - SOLO AND A NEW BAND (1985-2000)



Tunnel Of Love (1987)


Ain't Got You/Tougher Than The Rest/More Than Heaven Will Allow/Spare Parts/Cautious Man/Walk Like A Man/Tunnel Of Love/Two Faces/Brilliant Disguise/One Step Up/When You're Alone/Valentine's Day 

"On 'Tunnel of Love', Springsteen is writing about the promises people make to each other and the way they renege on those promises, about the romantic dreams we're brought up with and the internal demons that stifle those dreams. The battleground has moved from the streets to the sheets, but the battle hasn't changed significantly" - Steve Pond - Rolling Stone           
In 1987, the by now "stadium rocker" Bruce Springsteen ditched most of his E. Street Band for this "almost" solo album that saw him in reflective mood as his disastrous first marriage to actress Julianne Phillips started to show cracks. The songs are often bleak, with minimalist production as opposed to the full band bombast of the Born In The USA album, but they are touching and melodic. This is a thoughtful, often sad album, but it is no Nebraska in terms of bleakness. Cautious Man and Spare Parts get close but overall the songs are relationship-inspired ones as opposed to those motivated by poverty and hopeless personal situations. To be honest, at times, I feel I prefer this to the much more popular BITUSA. It has far more depth and it rarely gets mentioned when assessments are being made of Springsteen's work, although in latter years its critical reputation has grown considerably.

 
                         
The album kicks off with the short, Bo Diddley-ish Ain't Got You before we get one of the album's cornerstones, the lovely Tougher Than The Rest. The lilting country rock of All That Heaven Will Allow (later covered nicely by The Mavericks) leads into the stark rock of Spare Parts, about an unwanted pregnancy, with Springsteen's searing guitar part.

Cautious Man is a sad, haunting and tragic solo acoustic number, while Walk Like A Man is a melodic, touching paean to his father. Most of the lyrics to these songs concern familiar Springsteen topics of ordinary people with ordinary lives, often caught up in whirlpools of no hope, responsibilities, growing up and yearning love. Whereas sometimes these topics sat uneasily against a "good rockin'" backing, such as on The River, here, the backing is subtle and understated, giving the lyrics more potency in many ways.

A quick digression - thinking about Spare Parts again, I can't help think that the E Street Band would have given the song a better, fuller backing than we get here.

The old "side two" kicks off with the fairground sounds, images, atmosphere and staccato rock backing of Tunnel Of Love before a raft of gentle country-styled songs - Two Faces, the tuneful single Brilliant Disguise, the beautiful One Step Up and the underrated When You're Alone

The album closes with another high point, the mysterious, quiet Valentine's Day, with its images of "driving a big lazy car rushing up the highway in the dark".

This is a suitably sombre, reflective note as Springsteen gets into his car and drives off, who knows where. Despite touring this album in 1988, where the numbers were given the full E St Band treatment, a few (comparative) years in the wilderness beckoned. It would be 1992 before a two album release - Human Touch and Lucky Town.

Incidentally, by far the best sound quality for this album can be found on the Japanese CD release of it. 

The non-album tracks that remained unused from the album's sessions are - the quiet, acoustic Two For The Road; another low-key ballad in The Honeymooners; an unremarkable number in When You Need Me; a touching song written to his mother in The Wish and the sombre, slow blues of Lucky Man. The latter two would have made fine additions to the album. 


Human Touch & Lucky Town (1992)

  

HUMAN TOUCH/Human Touch/Soul Driver/57 Channels (And Nothin' On)/Cross My Heart/Gloria's Eyes/With Every Wish/Roll Of The Dice/Real World/All Or Nothin' At All/Man's Job/I Wish I Were Blind/The Long Goodbye/Real Man/Pony Boy                                    

LUCKY TOWN/Better Days/Lucky Town/Local Hero/If I Should Fall Behind/Leap Of Faith/The Big Muddy/Living Proof/Book Of Dreams/Souls Of The Departed/My Beautiful Reward 

"I tried writing happy songs in the early '90s and it didn't work; the public didn't like it"  - Bruce Springsteen                 

Released, oddly, as two separate albums on the same day, they really should have been a double album, or else one quality single album. There is definitely some filler on there, particularly on Human Touch and tracks like Gloria’s EyesSoul DriverCross My Heart and The Long Goodbye, which are sort of “average rock band by numbers” tracks, which brings us neatly to the fact that the band used on these albums is not the E St Band (apart from pianist Roy Bittan).

 

Looking for a change and hoping that working with new musicians would re-invigorate his muse, Springsteen dispensed with all bar one of his iconic band and employed a new bunch of journeymen/women musicians. The result is a competently played collection of material, but it always sounds as if something is missing. The E St Band have subsequently played some of this material live and it does indeed improve upon them. Having said that, tracks like I Wish I Were BlindWith Every WishBetter Days, the rocking E Street-y Roll Of The DiceSouls Of The Departed and the swampy blues of The Big Muddy sound great anyway. I also have to admit a real weakness for the cheesy Man’s Job.

Local HeroLucky TownAll Or Nothin' At All and the poppy Living Proof and Leap Of Faith are all more than acceptable too. If I Should Fall Behind and Book Of Dreams are both romantically beautiful, particularly the former.

 

I would say, though, that it is now that one can look back and say, pretty categorically, that Springsteen’s best days as a studio, album-releasing artist were behind him. Nothing has ever bettered the run of albums between 1973 and 1987. Anything subsequently just doesn’t match up, whatever people may say about “returns to form” and so on.

Unused tracks from the two albums' sessions are many, including some fine rockers like Seven AngelsLeavin' Train', the bluesy Trouble River and the fun of Part Man, Part Monkey. Sombre blues can be found on songs like the haunting Gave It A Name, Goin' Cali and Brothers Under The Bridge. There were quiet ballads like Sad Eyes, the sexually-ambiguous My Lover ManOver The RiseWhen The Lights Go OutTrouble In Paradise, the country-ish Happy and the catchy Loose Change. Some of these tracks could have enhanced Lucky Town, I feel. There was room.



In Concert (1993)


Red-Headed Woman/Better Days/Atlantic City/Darkness On The Edge Of Town/Man's Job/Human Touch/Lucky Town/I Wish I Were Blind/Thunder Road/Light Of Day/If I Should Fall Behind/Living Proof/My Beautiful Reward

Recorded in concert in Los Angeles in 1992, in front of a small audience for MTV.

'Unplugged' is a huge misnomer on this album (an "X" is put through the "Un" of "unplugged" on the cover). After the first acoustic delivery of the slightly bawdy but embarrassing hitherto unavailable song, Red-Headed Woman, Bruce calls out "ok, let's rock it" to his new band at the time (not the E St. Band) and they do a full band set. While nowhere near as dynamic as any of the live recordings with the E St. Band, it is ok, if not a little chugging. A lot of the material comes from the 1992 double album release of Human Touch and Lucky Town and it is those songs which are performed with the most verve and vigour, or so it seems to me. Those tracks that I was more familiar with from their time being performed with the E St. Band are those which I feel sound just slightly less than their best, such as Thunder Road and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Having said that, hearing Atlantic City in full band mode is excellent. It really works.

Tracks such as Lucky Town and Living Proof really come to life on here and Better Days and the superb I Wish I Were Blind are just superb. I have always had a guilty weakness for the cheesy Man's Job. A previously unavailable rarity is the rocking glory that is Light Of Day.

My Beautiful Reward and If I Should Fall Behind are both tender, sensitive quiet numbers in between the upbeat rock. To be honest, Springsteen is such a consummate performer that he lends a real commitment and personality to all the material on the album. He never gives half measures, does he?

This is a live album probably of more interest to committed Springsteen followers as opposed to ones who want to hear more well-known tracks live. They should go for Live 1975-1985 or Live In New York City, or indeed any of the numerous live sets available via Springsteen's own site.



The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)


The Ghost Of Tom Joad/Straight Time/Highway 29/Youngstown/Sinaloa Cowboys/The Line/Balboa Park/Dry Lightning/The New Timer/Across The Border/Galveston Bay/My Best Was Never Good Enough 

"They risk death in the deserts and mountains. Pay all they got to the smuggler's rings. We send them home, and they come right back again…hunger is a powerful thing"
 
Thirteen years on from the bold experiment of releasing a bleak, acoustic album in NebraskaBruce Springsteen decided to do basically the same thing again, although this time there were a few guitars added here and there, but it was pretty much an acoustic outing.

From Nebraska’s stark Mid-West badlands, the focus switches to the God-forsaken border lands of Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Mexico itself. The songs are often heartbreaking tales of migrants, hopeful migrants, drug addicts, prostitutes, their clients, drifters, ex-cons, no-goods, poor fishermen and Vietnam vets. 

 
   
The Ghost Of Tom Joad, more recently transformed into a guitar-driven masterpiece in concert, is here a gentle, acoustic-guitar and harmonica number with a melodic bass too, backing Springsteen’s quiet, sombre, reflective voice. A truly great track, chock full of cinematic imagery.

Straight Time and Highway 29 mine the same vein - quiet, understated in vocal delivery and instrumental yet incredibly powerful lyrically. It cannot be understated how brave it was to put out albums like this. This is an artist whose reputation was built on giving it his all on stage, playing often loud, dynamic rock songs. Here he is laid back, thoughtful, world-weary. The trio of Sinaloa CowboysThe Line and Balboa Park are three of Springsteen’s saddest, most evocative narratives. It is impossible to listen to them without being moved.

The characterisation is marvellous. Songs like Galveston Bay are almost mini-filmic dramas in themselves. Similarly the three songs I mentioned earlier. One could make a short movie of all of them.

The only nod to “rock” music is on the blistering Youngstown (pictured), the one song not set in the Southern borderlands, but in the steel foundries of North-East Ohio. As with the other songs, though, the outcome is a bleak one. 

This is a phenomenally sad album. No-one comes out of it with much hope. Maybe there is some redemption when the Vietnam vet puts the knife back in his pocket and walks on at the end of Galveston Bay. A tiny glimmer of humanity and hope for a better world.



Live In New York City (2000)


My Love Will Not Let You Down/Prove It All Night/Two Hearts/Atlantic City/Mansion On The Hill/The River/Youngstown/Murder Incorporated/Badlands/Out In The Street/Born To Run/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Lost In The Flood/Don't Look Back/Jungleland/Born In The USA/Ramrod/American Skin (41 Shots)/Land Of Hope And Dreams/If I Should Fall Behind

Recorded live in New York City in June and July 2000

By 2000 Springsteen had been gradually getting together with various E St. members and the time was right to get back to what mattered...

This live album is composed of highlights from Bruce Springsteen's long awaited reunion with the legendary E St. Band and the concerts at New York City's Madison Square Garden. For me, like all Springsteen's "official", regular, mainstream market live releases it is slightly underwhelming and unrepresentative of the live Springsteen experience. The best live recordings are to be found via his own site as downloads, where entire concerts can be found from many periods in his lengthy career.

This one, like Live 1975-85 and Plugged are not quite the finished article. That point made, I cannot argue that the material on here is good, and shows just why the E St. Band should never have been denied to the world from 1988 to 2000. It is good to hear vibrant versions of songs like My Love Will Not Let You Down (from the Tracks box set) and Youngstown, with its blistering Nils Lofgren guitar solo. Murder Incorporated is a hard rocking rarity, too. The moment where it segues into the rousing Badlands is wonderful.

Some of the songs are given new makeovers, like Atlantic City's full band version, Mansion On The Hill's Hawaiian guitar backing and a strange country-style mumbling incarnation of The River, which for me doesn't quite come off.

The second half of the release features three monsters in its ranks - a sixteen-minute Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out that includes the lengthy band introductions; the incredibly hard-hitting American Skin (41 Shots) and the emotional, uplifting Land Of Hope And Dreams. Despite being later recorded in the studio for the High Hopes and Wrecking Ball albums respectively, these are the definitive versions of the songs. It is nice to hear an oldie like Lost In The Flood resurrected and Born In The USA played in its original bottle-neck bluesy version. Ramrod is a bellyful of rollicking roadhouse rock fun and there is a point a couple of minutes into Jungleland when the drums, piano, guitar and saxophone go into orbit together and you realise you are listening to the best good-time rock'n'roll live band - ever.



MODERN TIMES (2002-2020)



The Rising (2002)


Lonesome Day/Into The Fire/Waitin' On A Sunny Day/Nothing Man/Countin' On A Miracle/Empty Sky/Worlds Apart/Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)/Further On Up The Road/The Fuse/Mary's Place/You're Missing/The Rising/Paradise/My City Of Ruins

"A brave and beautiful album of humanity, hurt and hope from the songwriter best qualified to speak to and for his country ... A towering achievement" - Uncut magazine

As a follower of Bruce Springsteen’s music since 1977, I have to admit that this is my second least favourite of his albums, behind 2009’s Working On A Dream, although, to be honest I play that one more than I play this one. You may find that odd, because many followers of his love it, and indeed, there are a fair amount for whom this was the album that sparked them to get into him and seek out his previous work. Me, I just don't really like much of it. Why? The poor, often digitally-programmed production for one and the fact that a lot of the songs just do not cut the mustard, for me. There is a lot of decidedly ordinary stuff on here, as far as I'm concerned. Of course this is just a personal opinion. We all have them.
                              
It is widely perceived as an album written in response to the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. That is only true to a certain extent. Songs like the moving My City Of Ruins and the evocative Nothing Man would seem to fit that particular bill perfectly, but in fact they were written before that date. The former was written about Asbury Park, New Jersey, but the latter with its “blue sky” references would seem to be about that day, but not so. There are three songs on the album that directly relate to the events of that day - the harrowing Into The Fire, about the fire service personnel who went into the towers. I have always been uncomfortable with this as subject matter for a rock song listened to for pleasure. I remember being at a Springsteen gig and seeing fans punching the air on the “into the fire” refrain of the chorus. Nothing to punch the air about in this song for me, I’m afraid. It is heartbreaking and for that reason, I find it unlistenable. You’re Missing is similarly upsetting, to be honest. I cannot derive any pleasure from it. I know that is not the point, but that is just how I feel about it. Empty Sky is the other one. Again have seen fans with arms in the air to this one. It is a sensitive and incredibly meaningful song, but, for me, after hearing its few times, I have no desire to hear it again. So, those are the direct 9/11 songs. So, what are we left with?

 

There are two songs which perceptively try to see events from a Middle-Eastern point of view - the sombre Paradise, a rarity of a song in that Springsteen sings in the first person in the role of a suicide bomber. A brave take indeed. Incredibly so, all things considered. It shows just what a remarkable songwriter and artist Bruce Springsteen is. In many respects it can be considered the finest song on the album. Worlds Apart features Pakistani musicians recorded separately and dubbed on to it. It has a beguiling, infectious appeal. Some great guitar from Springsteen in it too.

Then there are the “uplifting/hope for the future” songs. The upbeat country meets Celtic rock-ish opener Lonesome Day and the now iconic, tub thumper of a title track with its “come on up for the rising” refrain and biblical references in the lyrics. Both of these are rockingly enjoyable. There are two average middle-of-the-road rockers in Countin’ On A Miracle and the chugging, clunky blues rock of Further On Up The Road (incidentally covered in great style by Johnny Cash on one of his last albums).

There are my two personal favourites - the only slice of E.St that is the Sam Cooke and gospel inspired Mary’s Place and the mysterious and surprisingly sexual The Fuse. "Your bitter-sweet taste on my tongue...". Yes, Bruce we've all been there! Both of these songs sit somewhat uncomfortably within the album’s context (maybe that is why they are my favourites?).

Then, unfortunately, there is the rubbish. Lets Be Friends (Skin To Skin) is, well, I don’t know really. A sort of cod soul song that just doesn’t really work, not for me anyway. As for Waitin' On A Sunny Day, despite its undoubtedly catchy chorus it is forever tainted, in my eyes, by the memory of several gigs in which Springsteen not so spontaneously grabs a child from the audience and makes him/her sing the chorus. It was cute and amusing the first time. Not for the hundredth and counting. Sorry Bruce.

As I said in the introduction, this album just does not do it for me. Its probably me, not him. However, I have to say that I have always found the production on the album dull and lifeless and a bit tinny in places. Furthermore, why use a drum machine on occasions when you have the “Mighty” Max Weinberg at your disposal? This is just my opinion, though. Many people love the album. It is personally very important to them and I have no wish to not understand or acknowledge that. There are just many more Springsteen albums that I prefer.

Devils & Dust (2005)


Devils And Dust/All The Way Home/Reno/Long Time Comin'/Black Cowboys/Maria's Bed/Silver Palomino/Jesus Was An Only Son/Leah/The Hitter/All I'm Thinkin' About/Matamoros Banks

"Every decade or so, Bruce Springsteen releases a sombre album of narrative songs, character sketches, and folk tunes -- records that play not like rock & roll, but rather as a collection of short stories" - Stephen Thomas Erlewine - AllMusic   
                                      
This was an intriguing album from Bruce Springsteen. After two successful and high quality “acoustic”/non band effectively solo albums in 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Springsteen was back with another one in 2006. This one had considerably more instrumentation on it, but it is still essentially a Bruce Springsteen solo album. It is notable for the fact that in his vocals on some of the tracks, Springsteen sings in a decidedly odd falsetto voice, something he had never done before, save a few whoops at the end of I’m On Fire. In my view it did not work at all - if anything, it sounds faintly ludicrous, especially considering just how strong his voice usually is.

I shall deal with the high voice songs first, to get them out of the way! All I’m Thinkin’ About is an upbeat, jaunty enough bluesy rocker, but I’m sorry, it just sounds ridiculous. Maria’s Bed is a sensual song in praise of a giving lover, but you wonder what pleasure Maria got from such a bleating man. Again, it simply does not convince me, vocally. Then there are the ones where the voice is not quite so bad, but are throwaway, wasted opportunities. Long Time Comin’ is ok, I suppose, but it feels half-cooked somehow. I’ll let it off though. It’s not bad. All The Way Home was covered superbly by Southside Johnny on his 1992 Better Days album as a soulful, romantic heartbreaker. Here, Springsteen turns it into a sort of country rockabilly number. Again. It doesn’t work for me. The song loses all its soul. Leah, unfortunately, falls into this category too.

 

Ok. Let’s get a bit more positive. Devils And Dust is an atmospheric, slow and moving song with references to the Gulf War. It sounds as hot and dusty as its title suggests. Black Cowboys is a wonderful “character” song - melodic and packed full of images. You can get right inside the characters on this song. (The black cowboys mentioned in the song are pictured at the bottom of the review). Similarly the lovely country-ish Tex-Mex feel of Silver Palomino and the soulful, evocative Jesus Was An Only Son, which uses the biblical imagery Springsteen is so fond of, to great effect.

Matamoros Banks is a sad tale of migrants crossing from Mexico into the USA which harks back to the subject of much of The Ghost Of Tom Joad album. In 2019, a tragic picture of a father and ten year-old daughter lying dead, drowned on those very banks, was viewed by many. The Hitter is a slow, sensitive tale of a battered old prize fighter. These, for me, are the best songs on the album.

Then there is Reno. Ok, it is full of atmosphere and cinematic images but on the other hand it is a tawdry song about a bloke going with a prostitute. For a strange reason, I find it a bit disconcerting to hear Springsteen singing about such demi-monde subjects as how much she will charge him to well, you can imagine. It doesn’t quite fit with him really. Like hearing your father or a respected teacher talking about such things!

This is, for me, an album that is good in parts, but it is not one I return to very often. Maybe I should a bit more, but, oh, that voice…



We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)


Old Dan Tucker/Jesse James/Mrs. McGrath/O Mary Don't You Weep/John Henry/Erie Canal/Jacob's Ladder/My Oklahoma Home/Eyes On The Prize/Shenandoah/Pay Me My Money Down/We Shall Overcome/Froggie Went A-Courtin'/Buffalo Gals/How Can I Keep From Singing/How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live/Bring 'Em Home/American Land 

"Springsteen relies too much on a rural drawl and overblown sound when folk music requires subtlety and viewed the album as the worst case of his histrionic singing" - Robert Christgau   

Christgau may have had a point. Now, it all depends upon whether this is to your taste or not. It is an album of depression era/dustbowl and earlier traditional folk songs made popular by folk singer/activist Pete Seeger in the 1940s and onwards. They are (largely) not done in a stark acoustic Nebraska style or like Bob Dylan's Good As I Been To You album, but with a tub-thumping, Irish-influenced large entourage holed up at Springsteen's ranch. The only link to the E. St Band is violinist Soozie Tyrell. Instruments used include the said violin, tuba, banjo, accordion. You get the idea. It is good-time, down a few drinks and singalong folk exemplified in songs like Old Dan TuckerO Mary Don't You WeepJacob's Ladder and Pay Me My Money Down. It is a freewheeling, joyous, infectious romp and you know that everyone had a great time recording it. It is fun. Pure and simple. Where it falls down, for me, is that it lacks some hard-hitting "message" songs and emotional impact at times.

It is delivered by an enthusiastic, growling Springsteen putting on his best old pioneer on the plains accent, while rollicking banjo leads us on one great big "yee-haw" hoedown. It is all pretty addictive stuff and these is a case for saying it is the liveliest Springsteen album of all. Such a painstaking artist in the studio, yet such a spontaneous live performer, he applies the latter trait to the performance on the album. It is performed "live", you can hear him counting in the band and introducing the instruments and consequently, there is a stress-free looseness to the album that is most endearing.

 
                                                                                          
Springsteen's own folk songs, though, such as on Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad are often masterpieces of melancholic, no hope narratives. You don't get much of that on here. At times it can all sound a tiny bit corny, however. For me, the best cut on the album is the beautifully mournful Shenandoah where the soulful, sadness of Springsteen's voice comes in to its own.

When Springsteen does go a bit folky Dylan, as on Mrs. McGrath is is very effective. Those are my favourite parts of the album, when Springsteen gets serious. I can't help but love Erie Canal (pictured below) too, in the same way. That has always been the way for me with Springsteen. However, that said, the full band, rousing instrumental ending to Jesse James is just extremely enjoyable, and exemplifies exactly why so many people love this album. Indeed, the instrumental soloing throughout  the album is invigorating and a joy to listen to. Check out the Cajun bit on John Henry, followed by the banjo. Great stuff.

I have to admit to a huge weakness for the non-album bonus track, the Celtic fiddle and whistle romp of the narrative tale of immigration to the US of American LandHow Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live is another good one too, dating quite a way back. There is so much history on this collection, it has to be said, a veritable cornucopia of Americana.

I don't actually dig this album out very much, but whenever I do, I really enjoy it, so I guess therein lies its down-home, energetic, uplifting appeal.



Magic (2007)

  
Radio Nowhere/You'll Be Comin' Down/Livin' In The Future/Your Own Worst Enemy/Gypsy Biker/Girls In Their Summer Clothes/I'll Work For Your Love/Magic/Last To Die/Long Walk Home/Devil's Arcade/Terry's Song 

"It is a high energy rock album with a heavy E. St Band sound" - Jon Landau              
                                    
A strange album, this one. I rarely play it, yet the songs on it are potentially not so bad, they just never achieve what they could have done. This is largely due to the truly appalling, tinny, crashing sound employed by producer Brendan O’Brien. It renders the album virtually unlistenable. An example of this is on the album’s frantic, almost punky opener, Radio Nowhere - a good song spoiled by its bombastic production which almost drowns even a strong lead vocal like Springsteen’s. Many other songs are affected in the same way - Girls In Their Summer Clothes and I’ll Work For Your Love, in particular.

In terms of themes, the album is pretty morose, dealing with conflict, social problems and personal disillusion. Only the summery, romantic Girls In Their Summer Clothes and I’ll Work For Your Love raise the spirits slightly, but even these are narrated by a middle-aged Springsteen wistfully thinking back on the old days to a certain extent, from his position at the bar, while asking the barmaid for another shot.

 

The Last To DieGypsy Biker and Devil’s Arcade are covered in the dust of war and The Long Walk HomeLiving In The FutureMagic and You’ll Be Comin’ Down all bemoan contemporary life in one way or another. Personally, I haven’t got a problem with someone who has become quite a wise man expressing his views, I just wish he would be backed by better sound quality, as he deserves. In many ways, all Springsteen’s albums have been blighted by one sound problem or another. If only his songs had Steely Dan-style production. Now there’s a thought...

  

Apparently, there were several logistical problems in getting the E St Band all together at any given time to record the album, so most parts were recorded individually and “pasted” together, so to speak. Knowing that now, it shows. There is certainly something half-baked and maybe a little incomplete about the material on here. As I said earlier, as if it hasn’t reached its potential. A sad thing about this recording, too, is that Clarence Clemons’ now all too infrequent saxophone solos are becoming increasingly, sadly, irrelevant.

Working On A Dream (2009)


Outlaw Pete/My Lucky Day/Working On A Dream/The Queen Of The Supermarket/What Love Can Do/This Life/Good Eye/Tomorrow Never Knows/Life Itself/Kingdom Of Days/Surprise Surprise/The Last Carnival/The Wrestler

"I hope 'Working on a Dream' has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we've ever done" - Bruce Springsteen

Hmmm, I'm not sure about that, Bruce. For me, it is pretty much the outstanding candidate for the dubious title of Bruce Springsteen’s worst album - an apparently hurried recording cobbled together during the 2008-2009 Magic tour. It would seem the tracks on here were rejects from the previous year’s far superior Magic album. It was seemingly intended to showcase Springsteen’s lighter, poppier side with a collection of Byrds/Searchers/60s pop influenced material. Over-produced, with a grating “modern” sound, it is all a bit of a stylistic mish-mash. Even the cover is positively dreadful. I hardly ever play this album, to be honest. Indeed, 2002’s The Rising, 2008’s Magic and this album all suffer from pretty poor sound, although this one is by far the better of the three in that regard.
                                           
Beginning unpromisingly with the almost unlistenable Western narrative Outlaw Pete, which is possibly up there with Bishop Danced from the early days of 1973 as Springsteen’s worst ever composition. The backing is admittedly quite impressive and some of the lyrics’ imagery is passable, but other parts of it are truly dreadful. A memory of this low point in Springsteen’s career is seeing middle aged men punching the air along to this at a concert, singing “I’m Outlaw Pete, - can you hear me!”. I know Springsteen inspires great loyalty from his fans, but come on guys. After eight minutes of this dross one is tempted to take the album off.

Things can only get better from here, but although they do, it is only very slightly.

  

Working On A Dream is incredibly lightweight, as is the pretty execrable Queen Of The Supermarket, which sees the sixty-year old Springsteen lusting, embarrassingly, over a young check out girl in his local convenience store. Dear me. I know many artists simply cannot regenerate the muse they employed in their twenties, artists mature, they lose that youthful fire, they try different things, but all these considerations taken into account, this is still quite unimpressive fare. It is not really a proper E St Band album either. Underpinned by drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan and bassist Garry Tallent, other members only appear as an where they are required. One good thing about the production of this album is that Tallent’s bass can actually be heard, as it struggles to do on The River. One of the title track’s few redeeming qualities is the bass line.

Good Eye is a rather unique effort to play the blues, which is ok on this album, considering what is around it, but unconvincing in the broader scheme of things, This Life is pleasant and melodious, with some really nice, uplifting sixties-style vocal harmonies and the bleak Life Itself has appeal too. The upbeat, rocky My Lucky Day and the folky, country-ish, laid back Tomorrow Never Knows (with its strange dog-barking sound in the background) also have their good points. To be fair, there is a listenability to it in many places, but this is Bruce Springsteen we are talking about.

The bleak narrative of The Wrestler is undoubtedly the album's best track, although it sits incongruously with the poppy nature of the rest of the album.

Now, this may well sound unacceptable to many, but I find Springsteen's tribute to recently-deceased organist and original E St. Band member Danny Federici in The Last Carnival somewhat underwhelming. All that "handsome Billy" stuff is a bit odd and just doesn't do it for me. Then again, it is Springsteen's tribute to his old friend so any criticisms from me are pretty irrelevant.



Wrecking Ball (2012)


We Take Care Of Our Own/Easy Money/Shackled And Drawn/Jack Of All Trades/Death To My Hometown/Wrecking Ball/This Depression/You've Got It/Rocky Ground/Land Of Hope And Dreams/We Are Alive/Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)/American Land 

"Very rock 'n' roll ... with unexpected textures—loops, electronic percussion[, and] an amazing sweep of influences and rhythms, from hip-hop to Irish folk rhythms"  - The Hollywood Reporter           

Another somewhat perplexing album, after some patchy output in the first decade of the new millennium, Bruce Springsteen was back, this time railing at big finance, bankers and corporate business. Many would say this was somewhat hypocritical from a multi-millionaire, but Springsteen’s heart has always been in the right place. His targets were/are definitely deserving of it.This is not an E Street Band album, some of the members, like Garry Tallent and Nils Lofgren do not appear at all. Others appear randomly on just a few tracks. Springsteen employs a large brass section, and the album is a sort of bridging point between the folky brass oompah of The Seeger Sessions and the guitar-driven rock of the last three albums. There are other styles in there too, lots of Irish rebel folk instrumental breaks, some gospel inflections and even some rap (which appalled some fans!).

 

For me, this is an album which starts really well, but tails off quite markedly. We Take Care Of Our Own is a pounding diatribe against a country who clearly does not always take care of its own, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina. Easy Money is a folk rock gripe at financiers, as is the catchy, singalong Shackled And Drawn with its big band backing. Jack Of All Trades is an evocative sparsely backed slow number, while Death To My Hometown is another rousing tub thumper uniting us all against those nasty bankers.


While Wrecking Ball is another fist pumper, just before that the tedious This Depression has seen the standard decline and this is continued by the thoroughly unremarkable You’ve Got It.

Rocky Ground features the rap and is actually quite appealing, as is one of the album’s best songs, the moving We Are Alive which sees ghosts of past social conflicts rising up to tell their stories against a rousing Ring Of Fire backing. Either side of that, though, is the studio version of the live barnstormer Land Of Hope And Dreams which is extremely disappointing and nowhere near as inspirational as the version that appeared on Live At New York CitySwallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale) is terribly turgid, but things are finished on a high note with the exhilarating Irish-influenced American Land.

There is some good material on here, but there are also some treading water moments which render this an album that feels a little incomplete.



High Hopes (2014)


High Hopes/Harry's Place/American Skin (41 Shots)/Just Like Fire Would/Down In The Hole/Heaven's Wall/Frankie Fell In Love/This Is Your Sword/Hunter Of Invisible Game/The Ghost Of Tom Joad/The Wall/Dream Baby Dream

"The thing with Bruce is that he accepts his inspiration without question, he doesn't analyze it. But when it comes time to analyze, that's when he turns the screws on everything. Then he'll go back and forth with sequences for months and months until he gets it exactly where he wants it. I don't see that in any other artist that I work with. It's usually like, 'What's a good sequence?' And then, 'Oh, the hit sounds good first. Then the bad songs should go at the end.' That's not how Bruce does it. He has a story to tell. We recorded a lot and at first it was a much longer record. Bruce did the same thing with 'Wrecking Ball'. I have the piece of paper with all 15 or whatever songs on it, and he draws a line through the last four and goes, 'This is it. Let's take these four off.' It was like a knife in my heart. I was like, 'Those are my favourites!' At the end of the day, though, he's always right. It's got to work as a piece. This was a much bigger experiment because it was so different. There was a little more back and forth with it" - Ron Aniello  

Rather like The Rolling StonesTattoo You, this was, as opposed to being a brand new album of new studio tracks, it was made up from songs from sessions for previous albums and re-makes of older songs. There were a few newer ones in there too, but it wasn't a "brand new" album, as such. That said, it is ok, and superior in some ways to Wrecking Ball and definitely better than the patchy Working On A Dream. Granted, as the songs are chronologically and conceptually unconnected, the album has no real identity, or continuity. Personally, though I prefer it to the slightly tedious griping about bankers and world finance such as appeared on the Wrecking Ball album.

    
                               
The opener, High Hopes, written by a guy called Tim McConnell and not Springsteen, dates from 1995 originally. Here it is delivered in a shuffling, brassy rocking fashion and has a convincing, lively vocal and some excellent guitar.

Harry's Place dates from 2001 and The Rising sessions. For many, it is their least favourite on the album. Not me, it is the opposite. I love it. It is full of buzzy guitar, a smoky, sleazy, menacing atmosphere and another excellent vocal from Springsteen. It is better than most of the stuff on The Rising, for me, anyway. Springsteen singing "fuck" several times is a bit odd, however, like hearing your father or a teacher cursing. American Skin (41 Shots) is, like Land Of Hope And Dreams from Wrecking Ball, a song that existed for years as a live recording only, dating from the Live In New York City album from 1999. Like that song, too, the live version remains the definitive one. This song is done better in the studio than Land Of Hope And Dreams, however, and is rumbling, evocative and atmospheric, smouldering with anger and injustice. Its meaning is becoming more and more relevant as more and more Americans are needlessly shot by law enforcement officers. I have never been too happy at the presence of Tom Morello in The E. St Band, but I have to admit the guy plays a mean guitar. He does so at the end of this song to great effect.

Just Like Fire Would is a cover of a song by Australian punk(ish) band The Saints, dating from 1986 (The Saints version). Springsteen had been singing it in concert in Australia and decided to record it. It actually sounds like a Springsteen song from the 1980-1984 period. It is a good one and a concert favourite. It sounds tailor-made for The E St. Band. Down In The Hole dates from 2002-2008, as does Heaven's Wall. The former is a slow, muffled vocal number with an I'm On Fire percussion/organ backing and a sombre atmosphere. The latter is a "raise your hand" gospelly track that would have sat well on Wrecking Ball. It has some excellent fuzzy guitar interplay in it too.

Frankie Fell In Love is another very E. St barroom rocker, that wouldn't have been out of place on Born In The USA. I am not sure from when it dates. Whatever, it sounds very "retro". This Is Your Sword sounds as if it dates from the Celtic-influenced, fiddle-drive anthems of Wrecking Ball. It has a real singalong refrain and a Celtic fiddle riff at the end. Hunter Of Invisible Game is a mid-2000s mournful, yearning slow tempo in Springsteen's unique folky style. It is full of imagery about "boneyards, valleys and beasts" and the like. All very bleak and reflectively cynical in that world-weary way he does so well.

The Ghost Of Tom Joad is best known as the quiet, gently acoustic title track of Springsteen's 1995 album. Here, as a result of this version's success in live shows, it is played as a huge, thumping, muscular rock number, enhanced by the incredibly good guitar work at he end from Tom Morello. It is some of the best guitar you will ever hear. Stunning. The Wall dates from 1998 and was written after a visit to a memorial wall of casualties. Springsteen remembers and old mate from the sixties who died in Vietnam. It is a moving song, but unfortunately delivered in that strange, nasal twangy voice Springsteen uses sometimes. It has a lovely horn solo at the end.

Dream Baby Dream is a cover of a song by a band called Suicide, who I admit I know nothing of. It was recorded by them in 1979. It is lyrically not up to much, repeating the title again and again and "keep the light burning".  It has a certain fugue-like sad quality to it though.

I have to admit that I like this album more than the last batch of Springsteen's offerings, indeed, it is my favourite after The Ghost Of Tom Joad on reflection. A great thing in its favour is that it has by far the best sound on a Springsteen album since the early nineties. Albums like Magic were blighted by poor sound, so while I probably like that album's songs more, I prefer this one because of its more accessible sound. All that said. I listened to this a lot when it first came out. Nearly five years later, this is the first time I have returned to it.

Springsteen On Broadway (2017)


Growin' Up/My Hometown/My Father's House/The Wish/Thunder Road/The Promised Land/Born In The USA/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Tougher Than The Rest/Brilliant Disguise/Long Time Comin'/The Ghost Of Tom Joad/The Rising/Dancing In The Dark/Land of Hope And Dreams/Born To Run

Recorded live on Broadway in 2017

This a is a strange product to review. Taken from Springsteen's four month solo residency at a Broadway theatre which saw him, a guitar, a piano and a nostalgic ageing man's hatful of evocative memories deliver a physical autobiography. I am sure it was an interesting and captivating performance (although not a concept I would particularly have had any interest in attending, preferring a full on band to solo acoustic shows), however, it does not really transfer well to CD, download or vinyl. Half of the time is taken up with Springsteen's extensive monologue introductions to each song. These are often several minutes in length. Even the songs often have a spoken narrative section half way through before he returns to the song. The show was eventually extended and lasted nearly fourteen months.

For me, I just simply have no desire to listen to Springsteen's monologues again and again, however interesting they may be first off, which they often are, as he is an inveterate storyteller. People such as myself who have been aficionados of his music and live performances for several decades now (I date back to 1978) are more than familiar with his upbringing by now - his father, his mother and all that stuff about searching for dreams and travelling down those roads and so on. We have heard the stories many times before, accompanied by Springsteen's nervous little laugh, so it is nothing new. Neither are the narratives on this performance followed by the E. St Band launching magnificently back into a song, such as on Live 1975-1985's Growin' Up, here they just carry on in to more low-key, acoustic performances. Yes, sometimes the acoustic rendition provides something special, such as on Born In The USA, with its sublime bottleneck guitar, but you can't convince me that The Promised Land is better, acoustically. The thought of him doing this show, night after night, for fourteen months is an exhausting one - rehearsed as it is, with no "curveballs" thrown in, as in a regular live set.

All that said, the section about his mother and the accompanying song The Wish had a serious lump in my throat. It is genuinely moving. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out has the same effect too. Furthermore, Springsteen's piano playing has improved considerably, it has to be said. On Freeze-Out it is almost "Professor"-like.

You know, I feel it would have been good for Springsteen to have put some of these great narrations to music, rather like Van Morrison did in On Hyndford Street, where he narrates memories from his youth over a subtle backing. I'm thinking in particular of the "smell of coffee grounds" section of the intro to My Hometown, about Freehold, New Jersey. Or made some of the memories into songs.

So, taking all my feelings into account, it just doesn't really do it for me, neither do I feel it really works well as a live recording. It is not something I would wish to revisit once heard. Just as I wouldn't read an autobiography again and again. That doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed it the once.



Western Stars (2019)


Hitch Hikin’/The Wayfarer/Tuscon Train/Western Train/Sleepy Joe’s Café/Drive Fast (The Stuntman)/Chasin’ Wild Horses/Sundown/Somewhere North Of Nashville/Stones/There Goes My Miracle/Hello Sunshine/Moonlight Motel

"It is a return to my solo recordings featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements, a range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope"  - Bruce Springsteen      

I have a strange relationship with Bruce Springsteen these days. From those heady days of hero-worship of 1977 to 1984 we’ve both come a long hard way down that little dirt track that has a sign out front sayin’ “Thunder Road”. I guess the bad seeds got sown, Sir, when the Born In The USA album came out and he was no longer a comparative “cult” artist that only a relatively small percentage of people in the mainstream really knew about. That album suddenly sat alongside ThrillerBrothers in Arms and the latest Phil Collins offering on the same people’s sparse record shelves. Maybe it all started to drift away a little then, down through those dead ends and two-bit bars. Not that anyone would have known, however, as I carried on seeing him live, following that dream to places as diverse as Detroit, Rotterdam and Paris. I have always stuck with him out of pure nostalgia but before I bore you all to death the point I am ponderously getting to, in classic Springsteen rambling narrative style, is that while I still habitually get everything he releases, I listen to his music only about once a year.

While old mates Steven Van Zandt and (even now and then) Southside Johnny are still keeping that mid-seventies Spectoresque, horn-driven Asbury Park flame burning on their latest albums (particularly the former, check out Summer Of Sorcery), Springsteen left the girls and the boardwalk behind a long time ago, save for the odd throwback like Girls In Their Summer Clothes in 2008. The Boss’s thing now is stripped back, bleak (ish) cowboy/old West-themed numbers, still rocking at times, but very dominated by sweeping, heavy, sonorous keyboard backing, without a horn, Bittan-esque tinkling piano or Clemons-style bullhorn saxophone within a hundred miles of earshot. It sounds like Springsteen with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. At times it can be overwhelming, but at other times it can be uplifting and provides a dramatic backdrop for his cinematic lyrics.

The man still has his innate ear for a tune and a killer turn of phrase, however, he will never lose that. He has that certain very special something that he always did that makes one sit up and listen. For that reason I find myself returning, despite my considerable misgivings about the album. To be fair to him he is making a concerted effort to produce a considerably different album, rather than doing the same old stuff. He needs credit for that, for sure. This review is four times the size of the one for Born In The USA, for example, so there is some thought-provoking material on it. The album, from what I have read so far, is already being hailed as a work of genius by professional music journalists. I know where they are coming from and it would be easy to say the same thing, but those strings and that high voice......

Anyway, on with the show, this is what we now get in the land of hope and dreams as we still hide on the backstreets…

 
                             
Lyrically and thematically, Springsteen is channelling his inner Bernie Taupin and heading out to Tuscon trying to break in them wild Palominoes. One look at what is one of his best ever covers makes that pretty clear. The rear cover sees him in front of car in a cowboy hat and is less evocative, more obvious.

The album starts on a low-key note with the sombre, reflective Hitch Hikin' which features a somewhat old-sounding, croaking vocal from Springsteen. The backing is stately - acoustic guitar and those strings. Get used to them, they're all over this album. Lyrics about "passing telegraph poles out on the road" set a familiar Springsteen theme. The Wayfarer is similarly gentle but appealing all the same. The strings/brass break half way through is classic fifties/sixties Western movie soundtrack fare. Springsteen even laconically sends himself up a bit as he says "it's the same old cliché, wayfarer on his way, slipping from town to town" and deconstructs his own mythology.

Tucson Train has a solid rock beat and a convincing vocal but it is a bit overwhelmed by some Western movie-style orchestration in its backing. They are quite captivating, however, and I find this one is a bit of a grower. There is also a bit of piano hidden away in there. I’m quite enjoying this. Good track. I've heard it lots by now as it was available a few weeks ago. Some "proper" drums feature on it and it has an atmosphere. Western Stars is another pleasant track with a typical Springsteen construction, it sounds like something from Devils And Dust or Tunnel Of Love in places. All that Western imagery is present, as a Western movie actor narrates, with references to John Wayne, cowboys and riding. The character in the song was "shot by John Wayne" in a movie. It is a great song, greater the more you listen to it.

 

I really like the Tex-Mex-ish Mavericks-style romp of Sleepy Joe's Café, with its decidedly Danny Federici fairground organ sound. Yes, it is the cheesiest number on the album, but I find it irresistible. The mournful Drive Fast (The Stuntman) is full of archetypal Springsteen imagery and characterisation. Chasin' Wild Horses is exactly as you would expect it to be as Springsteen lives out his cowboy fantasy. Despite its somewhat cheesy backing, it carries an appeal to it. So many of his lyrics are so descriptive. The man is a superb narrator of a story/scene. The song seems to effortlessly flow into the livelier but still down-at-heel Sundown.

Somewhere North Of Nashville is a slow, acoustic number that doesn't actually make two minutes in length. Stones is similarly bleak-ish, a marriage break-up song, but with more orchestration. That overbearing enhancement is back again on There Goes My Miracle. It kicks into action with a solid, thumping rock drum backing but on this one, I find Springsteen is struggling with the vocal, trying too hard to hard to sound melodic enough to handle the strings/keyboards, or whatever it is that provides the instrumentation. It sounds a lot like some of the material on 2009’s Working On A Dream album, musically, lyrically and vocally. Particularly with the string “riffs”. That high voice bit at the beginning is pretty naff, I have to say. All that said, the song is infuriatingly catchy and my Wife loves it. I can’t stop singing it either.

 

Hello Sunshine has an infectious, shuffling rhythm such as was used on much of the material on disc four of the Tracks box set. It is a bleak song, though, with a bit of country guitar and a plaintive, sad, mournful vocal from Springsteen. Once again, it has a hook to it, as I said earlier, Springsteen never loses that, but I still have to question whether I really like it, or I think “oh it’s Bruce, I have to like it”. On reflection, I do like it anyway, so that’s another positive. The question I am left with, though, is "if this wasn't Bruce Springsteen, would I like it?".

Moonlight Motel is a sad narrative to end this challenging album on. There are parts of the album that are not quite to my taste, and I am not sure whether I will play it endlessly, but I certainly accept that it is a beautifully-created, mature and thoughtful piece of work. It is, for me, by far the superior piece of work to Born In The USA, so there you are. I guess what matters is Springsteen's music is now something that makes one think and go back and listen to again. He really is a remarkable artist in that respect.



Western Stars (Movie Version) (2019)

This is a somewhat superfluous release. Bruce Springsteen and an orchestra run through his Western Stars album from a few months earlier live in a studio in front of what sounds like a very small audience, judging from the polite clapping in between the songs. There is no fuss made and no between song chat at all. It just starts, the songs are played, then it ends.

The songs are played pretty straight and authentic to their originals, therefore making it an unessential recording. For me, though, there is a nice bass punch to the live performances, more so than on the original studio versions. Springsteen's vocal performance is faultless and emotive from beginning to end. The orchestration is more subtle and the bass more pronounced in places, so it suits me. There are a few slight differences - a few more backing vocals here and there and more pronounced, such as on The Wayfarer, a little less strings, a bit more bass, a few little fetching new instrumental bits, but nothing incredibly discernible. For that reason it is an interesting listen but certainly not one of which I think "I have to own that..". I enjoyed it, however.

A bonus is Springsteen's version of Glen Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy. Springsteen tackles it enthusiastically and the orchestration is dramatic and sweeping, as you would expect, but vocally, Glen Campbell did a much better job.



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