Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Bruce Springsteen - The Middle Years (1984-2000)



Covered here are:-

Tunnel Of Love (1987)
Live in Buenos Aires (1988)
Human Touch & Lucky Town (1992)
Dress Rehearsal Concert (1992)
Live Unplugged (1993)
The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)
and Live In New York City (2000)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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TUNNEL OF LOVE (1987)

1. Ain't Got You
2. Tougher Than The Rest
3. More Than Heaven Will Allow
4. Spare Parts
5. Cautious Man
6. Walk Like A Man
7. Tunnel Of Love
8. Two Faces
9. Brilliant Disguise
10. One Step Up
11. When You're Alone
12. Valentine's Day            
 
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. To be honest, at times, I feel I prefer this to BITUSA. It has more depth and it rarely gets mentioned when assessment's are being made of Springsteen's work.

                             
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 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. 

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LIVE IN BUENOS AIRES (1988)

1. Born In The USA
2. The Promised Land
3. Cover Me
4. I'm On Fire
5. The River
6. Cadillac Ranch
7. War
8. My Hometown
9. Dancing In The Dark
10. Glory Days
11. Raise Your Hand
12. Twist And Shout
13. Chimes Of Freedom

This is, finally, the recording of Springsteen's set from the Amnesty International concert in 1988 that was televised at the time at featured an energetic and enthusiastic performance from Springsteen in front of a huge, lively Argentinian crowd.

The sound quality is, as is often the case on these "legal but not official" old radio transmissions (or even on Springsteen's official live downloads) is certainly not "audiophile", but, as far as i am concerned, it is fine for me. It has a real live atmosphere to it, and Springsteen is a live performer who is all about the sheer "oomph" of the performance as opposed to audiophonic perfection. The sound is punchy, with good bass reproduction and solidity. As I said, fine by me. Incidentally, there are two of these recordings around, this one has the better, clearer, louder sound.

The set kicks off with a muscular Born In The USA and the anthemic The Promised Land. Other highlights are the rocking, joie de vivre of Cadillac Ranch followed by Edwin Starr's War, an excellent duet with Sting on The River and a wonderful conclusion of Eddie Floyd's Raise Your Hand, an extended Twist And Shout and the final, rousing cover of Bob Dylan's Chimes Of Freedom, which features Tracy Chapman, Sting and Peter Gabriel, among others, taking turns of lead vocals. Great Stuff. I have wanted to get hold of this version of the song for ages, because, infuriatingly, on the video of the concert, the credits roll and it gets cut off after a minute or two.

Springsteen, as always, puts so much energy and commitment into his performance it takes your breath away. Only a performer as dynamic as he is can inject so much power and verve into a decidedly average track like Cover Me, which just comes alive here.

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HUMAN TOUCH & LUCKY TOWN (1992)

  

HUMAN TOUCH

1. Human Touch
2. Soul Driver
3. 57 Channels (And Nothin' On)
4. Cross My Heart
5. Gloria's Eyes
6. With Every Wish
7. Roll Of The Dice
8. Real World
9. All Or Nothin' At All
10. Man's Job
11. I Wish I Were Blind
12. The Long Goodbye
13. Real Man
14. Pony Boy                                    

LUCKY TOWN

1. Better Days
2. Lucky Town
3. Local Hero
4. If I Should Fall Behind
5. Leap Of Faith
6. The Big Muddy
7. Living Proof
8. Book Of Dreams
9. Souls Of The Departed
10. My Beautiful Reward                    

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 beautiful, romantic If I Should Fall Behind are all more than acceptable too.

  

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.



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DRESS REHEARSAL CONCERT (1992)

1. Born In The USA
2. Local Hero
3. Lucky Town
4. Darkness On The Edge Of Town
5. If I Should Fall Behind
6. 57 Channels (And Nothin' On)
7. The Big Muddy
8. Living Proof
9. My Hometown
10. Leap Of Faith
11. Man's Job
12. Roll Of The Dice
13. Human Touch
14. Glory Days
15. Hungry Heart

Recorded in front of a small audience in Hollywood in 1992

This is an interesting and enjoyable now-available live collection that was performed as a warm up for Springsteen's forthcoming tour with his "new band" of session musicians, controversially replacing the E St. Band in 1992. It was played before a small audience in the Hollywood Center (the same venue that would be used for the Plugged - In Concert show. While there are some duplicates of tracks across the recording of that show and this one, mainly the new material from the double album release of Human Touch and Lucky Town, there are others that do not appear on Plugged, such as Born In The USA, 57 Channels (And Nothin' On), the haunting and bluesy The Big MuddyMy HometownLeap Of FaithRoll Of The DiceGlory Days and Hungry Heart.

Personally, I prefer it to Plugged and find that, while it doesn't have better sound quality, it has more vibrancy. The sound on here is surprisingly good, however, if played on a good system. Springsteen completists will not be disappointed. Although the band are not the E St. Band, they are not as bad as some would have you believe and the set is played enthusiastically. Springsteen always gives of his best anyway.

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UNPLUGGED IN CONCERT (1993)

1. Red-Headed Woman
2. Better Days
3. Atlantic City
4. Darkness On The Edge Of Town
5. Man's Job
6. Human Touch
7. Lucky Town
8. I Wish I Were Blind
9. Thunder Road
10. Light Of Day
11. If I Should Fall Behind
12. Living Proof
13. 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.



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THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD (1995)

1. The Ghost Of Tom Joad
2. Straight Time
3. Highway 29
4. Youngstown
5. Sinaloa Cowboys
6. The Line
7. Balboa Park
8. Dry Lightning
9. The New Timer
10. Across The Border
11. Galveston Bay
12. My Best Was Never Good Enough         

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 ArizonaTexasNew 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.



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LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY (2000)

1. My Love Will Not Let You Down
2. Prove It All Night
3. Two Hearts
4. Atlantic City
5. Mansion On The Hill
6. The River
7. Youngstown
8. Murder Incorporated
9. Badlands
10. Out In The Street
11. Born To Run
12. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
13. Lost In The Flood
14. Don't Look Back
15. Jungleland
16. Born In The USA
17. Ramrod
18. American Skin (41 Shots)
19. Land Of Hope And Dreams
20. If I Should Fall Behind

Recorded live in New York City in June and July 2000

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.



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