A few weeks ago, desperate to shake myself out of a music funk, I decided to listen through Bruce Springsteen’s entire discography.
It was the first time I’d attempted this with Springsteen, and while it took several full work days and a lot of teeth gritting, it wound up being immensely rewarding. The Boss has been a part of my life in such a direct and fundamental way for so long, that I hold being a Springsteen fan as a main tenant of my identity. I hold Springsteen fandom nearly as closely as I hold Catholicism, so when I decided to do this, mostly to pass the time at work, I didn’t know how would turn out.
I decided to divide everything up into 4 sections, thus allowing me to jump around while writing. I also skipped live albums, compilations and “The Seger Sessions.” I included The Promise because it’s stunningly wonderful. (As are The Seger Sessions, just, you know time…)
The E Street Shuffle (Greetings From Asbury Park, The Wild The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle, Born To Run, Darkness on The Edge Of Town)
There are two kinds of people in this world, those who roll their eyes at Springsteen’s particular brand of earnest rock ‘n roll, and those who know every beat of Born To Run perfectly. I’m that second one, and this is the era of Springsteen’s career that I’m most familiar with, due it being the one that haunted my childhood. Born To Run was ever in our 6 CD changer, that my father used to fill our house with music, Darkness on The Edge of Town, his favorite album, nearly always his “pick” for long car rides, and “Rosalita” off of The Wild The Innocent and The E-Street Shuffle is my family’s official anthem, and for it’s entire 8 minute length played at a party we’re attending will now clear the dance floor save the 5 of us. (When friends of S/O’s are invited to participate it’s been called, “an honor.”)
This emotional connection to the music should make it harder for me to critique, and it does, a little bit. But this is still the purest point in the Springsteen discography. “Jungleland,” has some of the most evocative and haunting lyrics ever, and it’s probably the best of use of Clarence Clemmons on the sax that can be explored. It has it’s low points too, and I’ll get into them.
Greetings is a pretty imperfect first effort, while it features “Blinded By The Light,” which is a sampling of Bruce’s true gift for pop joy, and “Growin’ Up,” which could feature on any Springsteen album and be at home, it also features the ponderous “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” which is a trial to get through.
The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle is so much fun, and presents the first real workable Bruce Epic, in “Lost In The Flood,” as well as “Rosalita,” which as mentioned above is my family’s very special song.
Born To Run requires little to no dissection. It’s been analyzed to death, overplayed to the point of crazed familiarity, and I love it no less than I did when I was 8 years old.
And then there’s Darkness On The Edge of Town, to steal from another hero lyricist of mine, “it’s almost like praying.” I’ve heard it referred to as the dark second act to Born To Run, all disillusionment and broken hearts. And there’s a lot of that in there. Bruce was definitely disillusioned when writing the album. (More on that when we get to The Promise.) But to me, what Darkness shows beyond all other albums is that The Boss is an optimist. Sure, it’s less dreamy and star-gazey than it’s predecessors, but Darkness is primarily about going out and getting what’s yours, instead of just talking about it. How could an album that contains the lyrics, “no ain’t a boy, mister, I’m a man and I believe in the promised land,” ever be considered anything other than empowering?
Favorite Songs of This Era: “Growin’ Up,” “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”, “Rosalita,” “Lost In The Flood,” “Kitty’s Back,” “Thunder Road,” “She’s The One,” “Jungleland”, “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Racing In The Streets”
Surprises: None, seriously, I know these albums so well, the only surprises I ever get are how a song hits me, depending on my mood, and there was nothing overly new here. Maybe one day I’ll like “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” but after 27 years, I somehow doubt it.
Hungry Heart (The River, Nebraska, Born In the USA, Tunnel of Love)
Who likes power ballads? We got ’em here. Also a weird meandering meditation on the dust bowl…I think. Nebraska is confusing. Anyway, here we go.
The River is my favorite Springsteen album, bar none. I love it so much, and my heart skips a beat when any of the songs start. But what stood out to me on this particular listen was the structure of the album. For the most part, the “party songs,” are on the first disc. (The River being Bruce’s first double album) The second disc is made up of stirring ballads. But the fact that any album can share “Sherry Darling,” and “Wreck On The Highway,” is proof of the diversity in Bruce’s writing.
Nebraska. *Sigh* The first in the “I didn’t know this album well, because my parents didn’t have it,” series. But Nebraska is kind of like Darkness, but without all of that pesky hope and optimism, and fewer guitars. You can hear Bruce experimenting here, which is pretty fun. And it includes “Atlantic City,” which is one of my favorite “story songs.” Beyond that, there’s a reason Nebraska is largely forgotten, even by die hards. It’s simply nothing all that special.
Born In The USA is probably the only Bruce album even close to being as overplayed than Born To Run, and it’s not anywhere near as good, but it’s also deeply misunderstood, so yay! The title track is the opposite of patriotic and is actually about the abuse of Vietnam Veterans. For a while Bruce would only perform it live acoustic, so people would stop thinking it was about loving your country. It does have poppy bright spots, and it’s the best when played live. I love it very much for that.
Tunnel Of Love completely blindsided me. I didn’t really know any of it’s songs ahead of time, it’s another on the list of albums that we just didn’t listen to growing up, but I like it a lot. Listening through it was a revelation. You hear the Elvis influence that’s always been hinted at but never fully embraced in Bruce here and it’s pretty special. I recommend giving this one a shot.
Favorite Songs of this Era: “Sherry Darling,” “I Wanna Marry You,” “Ramrod,” “Independence Day,” “Atlantic City,” “Bobbie Jean,” “No Surrender,” “Ain’t Got You,” “Tougher Than The Rest,” “When You’re Alone”
Surprises: All of Tunnel of Love, which will now be entering regular rotation.
I’ll Be There (Lucky Town, Human Touch, The Ghost of Tom Joad)
I have vague memories of these albums from my childhood. Lucky Town in particular brought me back to elementary school in a very visceral way. But this is an interesting point because these are the albums recorded without The E Street Band, and it shows, there’s some work worth salvaging, particularly on Tom Joad, but for the most part, these lack the sort of heart that I look for when I’m touching down with The Boss.
Lucky Town should feel more personal than it does, but it mostly feels like reheated Darkness and Nebraska. It’s not enough of a departure in style to excuse the break with The E Street Band, but it’s also not as bad as my childhood memories seem to have filed it away as. It’s a decent post River effort. It’s not as good as some of the “comeback era,” albums, like say The Rising, or Magic, but it can hold it’s own with Working On A Dream. It also includes the best love song Bruce ever wrote in “If I Should Fall Behind.”
Human Touch is a different story. If Lucky Town is Darkness and Nebraska reheated after some time in the fridge, Human Touch is what happens when McDonald’s tries to emulate whatever food you actually like. It’s bloated, it’s boring, and there’s next to nothing new to be said in any of the songs. Everyone gets one dud, many artists have more than just the one. I’m just saying that I went back and re-listened to the albums I was less familiar with to analyze them a little, except Human Touch, because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is, in a word, challenging. It’s a remarkably beautiful and personal record, but, like Nebraska, it’s a little slow and meandering. Springsteen is trying to explore through rock music the themes of The Grapes of Wrath, and that is an ambitious thing to do. He mostly succeeds too.
Favorite Songs of This Era: “Lucky Town,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Leap of Faith,” “Youngstown”
Surprises: How poorly Human Touch held up, and the thematic depth of Tom Joad
Is There Anybody Alive Out There? (The Rising, Devils & Dust, Magic, The Promise, Working On A Dream, Wrecking Ball, High Hopes)
The E Street band returns and do so triumphantly in this, our final (and longest) chapter! Which is why I won’t preface it much.
The Rising is a really important piece of art to me. I’m not ever going to say that 9/11 deeply effected my day to day life (anymore than it did everyone’s) I lost no family members or friends. My parents were both safe at home that day. It only effected me in that I was thirteen years old and had no earthly sense that something this terrible could happen. I reacted the way a lot of people did, but how I always do. I latched on to personal stories about the day, the victims and the communities that were effected. The Rising did that musically, and it’s beautiful for it. It’s healing and cathartic for it. It’s a dark time to explore, but The Rising is all about lights at the end of the tunnel and the sun breaking through the clouds. And since I was a scared kid, I’ll always be grateful for that.
Every once in a while, Bruce tries to be Bob Dylan. The results of this are often mixed. Devils and Dust is an album of Dylan flavored Bruce songs and they are mostly OK.
I love Magic. I really love it. It’s probably the first album since The River that does not include a bad song. Magic feels, more than any other Bruce album, like you took The Jersey Shore and distilled it into pill form. It’s all sunny days, and friendly diner patrons, and just enough depth to keep from being boring or repetitive.
The Promise isn’t quite an album proper, it’s basically the rough draft of Darkness, newly released recordings that either didn’t make the album, or were tied up legally, or whatever. There’s a song called, “Come On,” which is literally the original lyrics of “Factory.” “Factory” is better, but it’s a cool listen.
Working On A Dream was the proper follow up to Magic, and it’s not anywhere near as good. It has it’s moments, including the title track, which was written for President Obama’s first campaign and the Golden Globe winning (and Academy Award ROBBED) “The Wrestler.” Overall, though, I’ve never been able to get into Working On A Dream on the whole. It’s a weird stop over.
It’s a weird stop over on the way to Wrecking Ball. Sometimes, when Bruce noodles around with other genres it doesn’t work. This was not the case with Wrecking Ball which is Bruce decided he wanted to play with Celtic Punk, and record studio versions of a couple of songs that had only been played live otherwise. Also, the title track is about knocking down Giant’s Stadium, but is also an anthem about people standing their ground and refusing to let go of their legacy. And it’s awesome.
High Hopes, a lot like Working On A Dream feels like a bit of a let down. Maybe it’s one that I just haven’t spent enough time with, but it’s consistently unmemorable to me, although it does remind me that “American Skin,” is an amazingly crafted protest song.
Favorite Songs of This Era “The Rising,” “Lonesome Day,” “Waiting On A Sunny Day,” “You’re Missing,” “Mary’s Place,” “My City of Ruins,” “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” “Radio Nowhere,” “I’ll Work For Your Love,” “Long Walk Home,” “Your Own Worst Enemy,” “Because The Night,” “Outlaw Pete,” “The Wrestler,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Land of Hope And Dreams,” “Death To My Home Town,” “American Land,” “Frankie Fell In Love”
Surprises: I love a lot of songs from this era, and I love Magic more than even I thought. (But not as much as The River)
Bruce Springsteen has written and recorded a lot of music and it means a lot to me. Some of it is transcendently good, some of it is terrible. But in the end I don’t think there’s another artist that I would want to put this amount of time and effort into. The depth and breadth of Bruce’s musical and lyrical content is hard to surpass.
Also, it wasn’t until I was finished that I realized I basically stole this idea from You Talkin’ U2 To Me? Which I have not listened to, but probably should.
But see, I didn’t with Springsteen, so…different.