Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Bite-sized Bruce

I have detailed Bruce Springsteen's studio albums chronologically here including small snippets from my more detailed reviews, which can be found by clicking :-

Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973)

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. 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)

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. 

Born In The USA (1984)

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 Thriller, Brother In Arms and Face Values. This horrified me. This was when Bruce Springsteen was taken from me and given to the masses. 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 present remotely like Badlands, Jungleland, Incident On 57th Street or Racing In The Street. 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.

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. 

Human Touch (1992)

Looking for a change and hoping that working with new musicians would re-invigorate his muse, Springsteen controversially 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, however, and it does indeed improve upon them, noticeably. This is the inferior of the two single albums that were released, for some reason, on the same day.

Lucky Town (1992)

As said above, 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, but not nearly as much as there was on Human Touch. Despite that, I would say that it is at this point that one can look back and observe, 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.

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.

Devils And Dust (2005)

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. 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)

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.

Magic (2007)

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.

Working On A Dream (2009)

For me, this 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.

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!). 

High Hopes (2014)

Rather like The Rolling Stones' Tattoo You, this was - as opposed to being a brand new album of new studio tracks - 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. 

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.

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