Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Bruce Springsteen - Modern Times (2002-2019)




Covered here are:-

The Rising (2002)
Devils & Dust (2005)
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
Magic (2007)
Working On A Dream (2009)
Wrecking Ball (2012)
High Hopes (2014)
Springsteen On Broadway (2017)
Western Stars (2019)
Western Stars (Movie Version) (2019)
and Bruce Springsteen: A Career In Twenty Songs

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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THE RISING (2002)

1. Lonesome Day
2. Into The Fire
3. Waitin' On A Sunny Day
4. Nothing Man
5. Countin' On A Miracle
6. Empty Sky
7. Worlds Apart
8. Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)
9. Further On Up The Road
10. The Fuse
11. Mary's Place
12. You're Missing
13. The Rising
14. Paradise
15. My City Of Ruins 

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.

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DEVILS & DUST (2005)

1. Devils And Dust
2. All The Way Home
3. Reno
4. Long Time Comin'
5. Black Cowboys
6. Maria's Bed
7. Silver Palomino
8. Jesus Was An Only Son
9. Leah
10. The Hitter
11. All I'm Thinkin' About
12. Matamoros Banks                                         
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…



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WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE SEEGER SESSIONS (2006)

1. Old Dan Tucker
2. Jesse James
3. Mrs. McGrath
4. O Mary Don't You Weep
5. John Henry
6. Erie Canal
7. Jacob's Ladder
8. My Oklahoma Home
9. Eyes On The Prize
10. Shenandoah
11. Pay Me My Money Down
12. We Shall Overcome
13. Froggie Went A-Courtin'
14. Buffalo Gals
15. How Can I Keep From Singing
16. How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live
17. Bring 'Em Home
18. American Land    

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 Tucker, O Mary Don't You Weep, Jacob'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.



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MAGIC (2007)

1. Radio Nowhere
2. You'll Be Comin' Down
3. Livin' In The Future
4. Your Own Worst Enemy
5. Gypsy Biker
6. Girls In Their Summer Clothes
7. I'll Work For Your Love
8. Magic
9. Last To Die
10. Long Walk Home
11. Devil's Arcade
12. Terry's Song              
                                      
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.

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WORKING ON A DREAM (2009)

1. Outlaw Pete
2. My Lucky Day
3. Working On A Dream
4. The Queen Of The Supermarket
5. What Love Can Do
6. This Life
7. Good Eye
8. Tomorrow Never Knows
9. Life itself
10. Kingdom Of Days
11. Surprise Surprise
12. The Last Carnival
13. The Wrestler   

Pretty much the outstanding candidate for the dubious title of Bruce Springsteen’s worst album, this is 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.



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WRECKING BALL (2012)

1. We Take Care Of Our Own
2. Easy Money
3. Shackled And Drawn
4. Jack Of All Trades
5. Death To My Hometown
6. Wrecking Ball
7. This Depression
8. You've Got It
9. Rocky Ground
10. Land Of Hope And Dreams
11. We Are Alive
12. Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)
13. American Land                                                 

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 KatrinaEasy 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.



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HIGH HOPES (2014)

1. High Hopes
2. Harry's Place
3. American Skin (41 Shots)
4. Just Like Fire Would
5. Down In The Hole
6. Heaven's Wall
7. Frankie Fell In Love
8. This Is Your Sword
9. Hunter Of Invisible Game
10. The Ghost Of Tom Joad
11. The Wall
12. Dream Baby Dream   

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.

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SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY (2017)


1. Growin' Up
2. My Hometown
3. My Father's House
4. The Wish
5. Thunder Road
6. The Promised Land
7. Born In The USA
8. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
9. Tougher Than The Rest
10. Brilliant Disguise
11. Long Time Comin'
12. The Ghost Of Tom Joad
13. The Rising
14. Dancing In The Dark
15. Land of Hope And Dreams
16. 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 FreeholdNew 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.



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WESTERN STARS (2019)

1. Hitch Hikin’
2. The Wayfarer
3. Tuscon Train
4. Western Train
5. Sleepy Joe’s Café
6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
7. Chasin’ Wild Horses
8. Sundown
9. Somewhere North Of Nashville
10. Stones
11. There Goes My Miracle
12. Hello Sunshine
13. Moonlight Motel         

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 DetroitRotterdam 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.



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WESTERN STARS (MOVIE VERSION) (2019)

1. Hitch Hikin'
2. The Wayfarer
3. Tucson Train
4. Western Stars
5. Sleepy Joe's Café
6. Drive Fast
7. Chasin' Wild Horses
8. Sundown
9. Somewhere North Of Nashville
10. Stones
11. There Goes My Miracle
12. Hello Sunshine
13. Moonlight Motel
14. Rhinestone Cowboy 

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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BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: A CAREER IN TWENTY SONGS



I make no apologies for the fact that nearly all the tracks chosen here date from the first decade or so of Bruce Springsteen's remarkable career. I thought about putting some later tracks in to the list but in the end I decided against it. For me the essence of Bruce Springsteen and his wonderful E St. Band is to be found in the 1973-83 period and is from then that my memories of being simply blinded by his light date.

1. Growin' Up (From "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.")
2. Sandy (4th Of July Asbury Park) (From "The Wild, The Innocent & The E St Shuffle")
3. Incident on 57th Street (From "The Wild, The Innocent & The E St Shuffle")
4. Thunder Road (From "Born To Run")
5. Born To Run (From "Born To Run")
6. Jungleland (From "Born To Run")
7. Badlands (From "Darkness On The Edge Of Town")
8. The Promised Land (From "Darkness On The Edge Of Town")
9. Racing In The Street (From "Darkness On The Edge Of Town")
10. Factory (From "Darkness On The Edge Of Town")
11. This Hard Land (From "Tracks")
12. Stolen Car (From "Tracks")
13. The Price You Pay (From "The River")
14. Highway Patrolman (From "Nebraska")
15. Used Cars (From "Nebraska")
16. Brothers Under The Bridges '83 (From "Tracks")
17. Linda Let Me Be The One (From "Tracks")
18. Across The Border (From "The Ghost Of Tom Joad")
19. The Big Muddy (From "Lucky Town")
20. Back In Your Arms (From "Tracks")

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