Monday, 31 May 2021

Ten favourite Bruce Springsteen albums

These are ten of my favourite Bruce Springsteen albums. They are listed chronologically as opposed to in order of merit, I prefer it that way as my favourites are always changing their order. I have also attempted to span his career with my selections.

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

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 Spector, Stax & 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 Bowie, Roxy 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. It does, however, contain several Springsteen classics and a wonderful second side that has meant that, perhaps surprisingly, it is possibly my favourite Springsteen album.

Born To Run (1975)

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.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

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. The album was suitably dark, though, and 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.

The River (1980)

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 You, You 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.

Nebraska (1982)

After the somewhat bloated, rock 'n' roll-influenced exercise of 1980's 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. 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. 

Tunnel Of Love (1987)

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 Born In The USA. 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 Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)

Thirteen years on from the bold experiment of releasing a bleak, acoustic album in Nebraska, Bruce 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. 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.

Wrecking Ball (2012)

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!). 

Western Stars (2019)

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......

Letter To You (2020)

For such a legendary band, Bruce Springsteen and The E St. Band (in full attendance) have put out surprisingly few albums and they have often (especially in latter years) been blighted by poor production. Here, thankfully, that is not the case as seventy-something Springsteen joyously leads his seventy-something mates down a little dirt track that has a sign out front sayin’ thunder road to resurrect some ghosts from the past. This is not a seaside bar/mean streets Born To Run Bruce album, though, nor a bleak Darkness On The Edge of Town. Its spirit is to be found back in the wordy glory of 1973 (due to the presence of three made-over previously rejected songs), in 1979-80’s The River sessions and in 2008’s Magic. It is an album respectfully lodged in the past and I love it for that - no dabbling in tape loops, ‘beats’ or rap vocal sections, just music that harks back to a more innocent time. Nobody is better qualified to deliver this sort of thing than a great nostalgist like Springsteen. 

To read my detailed reviews of all Springsteen's career, click here :-

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