This here is a 180 gram audiophile vinyl reissue of the artist frequently known as The Boss' 1975 breakthrough album, to which the immediate reaction must be "Why bother"? Along with that other contemporary biker opera classic, "Bat Out Of Hell", "Born To Run" has the kind of Spector-on-speed claustrophobic production that probably sounds great blasting out of a portable radio on a building site or at the beach but which doesn't really repay close analysis from a sonic perspective. Classic Records' painstaking attention to detail means that these songs have never sounded better on black plastic; it's a shame that that signifies so little, however.
To the music, then, and as the lone voice in the wilderness who still maintains that Springsteen has spent the last 25 years failing to scale the monumental heights of his first two, cruelly ignored, long players, recorded whilst he was gripped by an unshakeable (and possibly quite correct) belief that he was the new Bob Dylan ("Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.") and the next Van Morrison ("The Wild, The Innocent And The E. Street Shuffle") respectively, I have to admit that my reacquaintance with "Born To Run" was a pleasant surprise. Discounting the empty-vessel clanging of "Night" and "Backstreets", songs whose possible virtues are heavily disguised by the worst excesses of the album's, erm, characteristic production, "Thunder Road" is the same touching urban escape route as ever it was, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" stomps like James Brown in slo-mo, and "Meeting Across The River" is a rare outing for Springsteen's underexposed Tom Waits-style jazzhawk persona. (Trivia corner: Richard Davis, who plays bass on this track, also plucked strings on "Astral Weeks". So now you know!)
Surprisingly it's the title track that has weathered the years least gracefully. If you're more familiar with the Boss' later live version or Frankie Goes To Hollywood's piledriving, whip-smart cover you'll find it hard to suppress a smile at the stoned insensible rendition included here. It's great, of course, but not quite what your memory might have tricked you into expecting.
The undoubted highlight of "Born To Run" is arguably Springsteen's final excursion into the elaborate sidewalk theatre that made those first two albums so indispensable, to me at least. "Jungleland" is ten minutes of sheer road-movie bliss, a final kiss-off to his past lives and a first draft of the kind of Wagnerian excess that others would be embracing in years to come. It might not be his greatest achievement, but "Born To Run" still wears its illustrious history and unquestionable influence proudly, a timely reminder of the boss man's prodigious talent in times when his public profile seems to have slipped a little.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN The Rising (Columbia)
As the cover sticker reminds the casual browser, "The Rising" is Springsteen's first studio album to be recorded with a complete E Street Band since 1984's "Born In The U.S.A.", and it's also an album heavily informed by the events of September 11. Its helmed by long-time Pearl Jam collaborator Brendan O'Brien, producing his first Springsteen album.
Beginning rather alarmingly like Spinal Tap's "(Listen To The) Flower People", with its quaint, Aquarian age string arrangement, "Lonesome Day" soon settles into a traditional mid-paced Springsteen rocker, albeit littered with apocalyptic lyrics that leave the listener in no doubt as to the date of the titular day. Like most of the album's many traditional mid-paced Springsteen rockers, there's something slightly curtailed about it, as if it's too earnest, understated and restrained to comfortably swell to stadium proportions. Instead it's the quieter songs that carry this album, songs that pass oblique comments on 11 September, infused with sorrow, regret and hope but certainly not rage or anger. (A reprise of Springsteen's comment, on the "Live 1975-1985" box set, that "Blind faith in your leaders or anybody will get you killed", might be instructive here.) It's a measured and mature response from the one figure in the music industry to whom Americans might look for some kind of moral guidance.
"Into The Fire" is a humble elegy for the fire-fighters lost in the ruins of the World Trade Center - "Love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire". "Nothing Man" - a title shared with a Pearl Jam song, incidentally - shrouds an unnamed act of heroism in the kind of synthesised sonic fog deployed to such startling effect on Springsteen's soundtrack contributions "Streets Of Philadelphia" and "Secret Garden". "Empty Sky" carves a deep impression, its slow, steady pulsebeat hammering the self-explanatory lyrics home. "You're Missing" explores similar territory, to equally moving effect: "Coffee cups on the counter/Jackets on the chair/Papers on the doorstep/But you're not there". If he seems to return to the same theme time and again, it's more than justified in evoking the sense of a whole community of loss: these arent the individual heroics and tragedies of olden days Springsteen, these are disasters of a vast, seeping scale that demand to be lit from all sorts of angles. Possibly the most compelling track is "Mary's Place": originally posited as the most (only?) exuberantly upbeat song on the album, a straightforward, old-style Springsteen rocker, after several plays it feels like there's something not quite perfect about the narrative, and after several more the suggestion forms that this raucous party is actually a wake for a lost love. And how much deeper does that make the song? Fathomless, in my opinion.
Compared to what, those measured rockers that take up much of the rest of the album seem rather anticlimactic, something that might be attributed as much to O'Brien's bone-dry production as to their melodic similarity. There are touches of wit - "Waitin' On A Sunny Day"'s string arrangement twangles like a honky tonk Electric Light Orchestra, whilst human metronome Max Weinberg deliberately fluffs the rhythm behind the line "I'm a drummer girl that can't keep a beat" - and experimentation - a Pakistani qawwali group wail mournfully over a rhythm track that evokes the kind of ethnically-inclined dance music plied by the likes of Transglobal Underground and Loop Guru on the intro to "Worlds Apart", although they're soon drowned out by the band's blue collar rumble. "The Fuse" is all slow-burning (no, really) and sensuous, whilst the title track has a kind of unstoppable upward force to it that suggests it truly deserves its moniker. And then there's "My City Of Ruins", which begins in an unnervingly similar manner to The Band's "The Weight", evolving into a gospelly evocation of a down-at-heel Asbury Park that world events have since bestowed with rather too might significance. But its shoulders are broad, ending "The Rising" on an appropriate message of renewal.
There's a lot to appreciate here, if maybe not quite as much to enjoy. And maybe it does sound like the thoughts and feelings of the protagonists of the "Born In The U.S.A." album 18 years on, because, as always, Springsteen is writing about his constituents, the same people who elevated him to the position of the poet laureate of the white American underdog. And he's taken his people with him - arguably allowing younger prophets such as Mr Cobain and Mr Mathers to flourish in his wake - rather than attempt to court a new public. So for committed Springsteen fans, "The Rising" is solace and reassurance in the form of a black or silver disc. For me well, I'm still of the opinion that Bruce made his best music in his first year of recording, and everything he's released since the mighty street opera of "The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle" has been compromised to some extent in comparison. But, given that, "The Rising" is a thoughtful, well-crafted album that is surely the most appropriate record an artist like him could release at a time like this.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND Hammersmith Odeon, London 75 (Columbia)
I came to Springsteen the wrong way round. The first of his albums that I listened to properly was his second, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and immediately I understood Jon Landaus 1974 proclamation that Bruce was the future of rock n roll. As a 12-year old I had no knowledge of Van Morrison or Tom Waits, but with the benefit of hindsight I can hear their fingerprints all over that record in one way or another, and its second side remains for me the most perfect sequence of music Springsteen has yet signed his name to. Next I bought Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., and my enthusiasm for his work intensified: channelling the new Dylan comparisons on an airline to heaven, it remains an astonishingly assertive debut. Suitably primed, I worked my way through the headline works Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Born In The U.S.A. only to be baffled and disappointed by each, the lyrical and musical ambition swept aside in favour of shorter, more succinct songs seemingly custom tweaked for radio play and mass acceptance which, as history records, they certainly achieved.
So, thats why the release of Hammersmith Odeon, London 75 essentially the soundtrack to the concert DVD included in last years 30th birthday Born To Run box set - is so important to me. Quite apart from the Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen hype that accompanied his and the bands first British visit, at this point Bruce had released three albums, a good two-and-a-half of which contain, for me, the greatest, most evocative music he ever produced.
Thunder Road opens with the same Bruce and piano treatment that began the mammoth Live 1975-1985 box set, but it sounds much more up close and personal here. Achingly modulated, Bruce takes it down to a hoarse whisper and back up to a scream in a single phrase. You dont read that much about his vocal prowess or I dont, at least but during this gig his singing is pure street opera. Given the hype and his reported reaction angrily pulling promo flyers from the venues seats pre-performance he could perhaps be forgiven for being a little shaky, but no, he nails it from the first. Next up is well, what exactly is a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out? Youll know it when you walk into it, I guess. He sounds positively laryngitic here. He takes Spirit In The Night down to a pin-drop temporarily misplacing his hat in the process highlighting a rare criticism of the album: seemingly every song has its dynamics squeezed from the centre like an abused toothpaste tube, with the obligatory whisper-quiet pivot. Lost In The Flood loses its spastics reelin perfection line but becomes gruffer and maybe even more fabulous than the album version. When its over the crowd seem too stunned to applaud at first. Shes The One starts off as a slow motion Bo Diddley shimmer, becoming almost like The Who trashing Magic Bus by its close. (On reflection, maybe theres not that much space between the two.) Born To Run turns out spindlier than the unstoppable wall of sound captured on record but its fire remains undimmed; Backstreets is thick, swampy and salty with the heat. The E Street Shuffle, in contrast, is pretty radically reworked, losing its mariachi horns and switchback tempos in favour of a slow, languid 13-minute stroll down E Street. The studio version of Its Hard To Be A Saint In The City is hardly restrained, but here its attacked with reckless abandon, Professor Bittans piano and Max Weinbergs percussion in particular rattling out the sound of the subway.
The second disc opens with 17 tense and tensile minutes of Kittys Back, the band essaying a kind of bludgeoning, thuggish jazz, underlined by the credits claim of an interpolation of Van Morrisons Moondance, although if its there at all its too subtle for my ears to detect. The E Street Band are hardly the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, but their ambition cant be faulted. Is Jungleland his last gasp epic? Sure, there were long songs on later albums, but the likes of Drive All Night and Racing In The Street traded in this mad meltdown of Scorsese and Spector for a kind of bleak resignation. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) here wears a new Latin American intro that heightens its opening slam (on record it directly abutted the preceding Incident On 57th Street). If some of the originals telepathic precision is lost in the (E street) shuffle it still astounds, especially when it briefly morphs into Theme From Shaft. Sandy (4th Of July, Asbury Park) is early Bruce at his gentlest and most lyrical heck, even The Hollies covered it. The band play like theyre backing a Latin balladeer, and Springsteen offers some subtle but interesting lyrical tweaks. The show closes with a celebration of the bands early rock n roll inspirations (Jenny Take A Ride, Devil With A Blue Dress On, Good Golly Miss Molly, Quarter To Three) and a staggering reinvention of For You as a husky and haunting piano ballad.
In his blurred but immodest booklet essay, Springsteen talks of a set list I still dare any young band to match. Ironically, Hammersmith Odeon, London75 embodies a setlist that some (well, I) would argue no older Springsteen could touch. Its a cherishable album, and the most consistently entertaining live Springsteen document Ive yet heard. Of course, how you react to it will depend on how you like your Springsteen, but if you treasure the sound of the young New Jersey ragamuffin rising, phoenix-like, from the stew of his influences then youll find much to enjoy here.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia)
Of course, the fear is that a project such as this celebrating songs popularised by Pete Seeger could turn out to be a hairshirted, high in fibre, dry-as-a-dustbowl educational experience, but right from the opening count-in this record bristles with exuberance. It sounds like no Springsteen album with which you may be familiar: if Born To Run was the music of a garage band blown up to mythic, Spectorian proportions, then We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is a rampaging barn dance soundtracked by such un-rock n roll instrumentation as mandolin, tuba, upright bass, banjo, accordion, trumpet, trombone, pump organ and violin. These songs were recorded live in Bruces living room, with no rehearsals, The Boss conducting the ensemble on the fly, his calls for solos and key changes still audible on the finished product. His singing, too, has acquired even more of a weatherbeaten gravitas, better to match the raucous, gang mentality of the backing band.
These songs give voice to the oppressed, downtrodden and disenfranchised, amped up to megaphone intensity by the musicians friendly racket. For me, the album peaks on Eerie Canal (and not just because I live by one myself). Belying its maddeningly addictive melody, its a melancholy requiem for a lifestyle, and by extension a community, overtaken by progress. Theres dark, stoic humour in the dust bowl ballad My Oklahoma Home (Everything except my mortgage blown away), and Pay Me My Money Downs I wish I was Mr. Gates Theyd haul my money in, in crates almost certainly hauls different baggage along with it than when it was written in the 19th century. We Shall Overcome itself stands out in stark relief to the rest of the album. Recorded in 1997 for another tribute album Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, compared to the spiky elasticity deployed elsewhere it has the smooth surfaces of a Daniel Lanois production; in fact, its oddly reminiscent of Bob Dylans orphaned Series Of Dreams. Speaking of whom, the closing track is that big Scottish hit from the 16th century Froggie Went A Courtin, which Mr Zimmerman croaked through on Good As I Been To You.
An album that confounds expectations on every level, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions turns centuries-old reportage into a rollicking good listen, rendering these old songs vibrantly alive and, in some cases, such as the anti-war Mrs. McGrath, even sadly contemporary.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND Millennium Stadium,
Some artists, even, or perhaps especially, those who profess to be driven and compelled to perform – Van Morrison and Bob Dylan immediately spring to mind – are notoriously contemptuous of the interests of their paying audiences. Think of Van punching the clock on his 75-minute gigs, for example, or Bob cunningly simultaneously rearranging his music and camouflaging his lyrics to the point where you often have no idea what you’ve listened to until you read a setlist in the local paper the next day. Artists like these can have the uncanny knack of turning the most intimate venue into a chilly enormodome when they really want to distance themselves from the audience.
Bruce…well, Bruce is staring down the other end of that particular telescope. This might’ve been a – well, I hate to use such a banal word in this context – routine night for him and his E Street compadres, but they did enough to leave the most cynical of concertgoers slack-jawed in amazement. This was the largest concert I’ve ever attended – tying with the Manics’ Millennium extravaganza at the same venue – yet thanks to the jumbotrons on either side and behind the stage and Bruce’s man-of-the-people antics (pressing the flesh with the front rows – all of whom seemed to be wearing pink wristbands, as if to denote membership of some kinda secret VIP Bruce cult; collecting requests scrawled on pieces of cardboard from the crowd) – he managed to shrink the stadium through the warmth of his personality. This was also undoubtedly the longest single act performance I’ve ever witnessed: the calliope intro music chimed up at 20:15, and the band took their final leave of the stage at 23:10. At close to a three hour performance, that’s twice what you’d get at a Van gig.
Such quantity, of course, doesn’t mean bo without quality, and aside from an initially iffy sound mix that seemed all bass and treble with nothing in between (perhaps compounding the confusion by opening with a titbit for the hardcore faithful that I later learn is “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”) and the inevitable problem that, with a catalogue as deep and wide as Springsteen’s it’s unavoidable that at least somebody’s going to go home disappointed, there was plenty of that about too. Highlights? Well, what about pairing “The Rising” with “Last To Die” for a complete history of America in the 21st century? I would’ve been delighted to hear anything from his first two albums, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle”, still my favourites of his over two decades after I first heard them, so I was overjoyed when a shaggy dog story about various early E Streeters falling foul of authority wound its way into a magnificent, knockabout “Blinded By The Light”. A shimmering “Devil’s Arcade” got me thinking how much it sounds like the work of my favourite band, The Blue Nile, and the solo “Nebraska”n gloomfest “Atlantic City” was magnificent decked out in full band regalia. And how about this for an encore? A definitive “Jungleland”, “Thunder Road”, “Born To Run”, a shambolic yet stupendous “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and the Seeger-esque “American Land”, complete with bonus crowd-pleasing Welsh lyrical reference.
Dressed in black, Bruce and the band looked like time-travelling 50s greasers beamed back from the future to try and save a doomed civilisation through the power of rock ‘n’ roll. So, is he still the future of rock ‘n’ roll? Well, he’s certainly its present, its conscience and its consciousness. My gig buddy immediately elevated the evening to his all-time top five concert experiences; it’s comfortably in my top ten, and I’d have to think pretty hard to find sufficient reasons to deny it a top five placing.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN Magic (Columbia)
Let’s get the major whinge out of the way first: Bruce Springsteen’s 15th studio album is seriously hampered by its production. It’s been mentioned previously in these pages, but Brendan O’Brien has given “Magic” a congested, compressed sound that does little justice to the songs that bravely attempt to fight their way out of this sonic pillowcase. Of course, The Boss has been here before, for example the Spectorish overload of “Born To Run”, but “Magic” is a completely different kettle o’ cherries to that particular jukebox loaded with escape plans; in fact, I’d suggest it’s the best collection of songs Bruce has put together in decades, maybe since “Tunnel Of Love”.
I can live without the generic “can’t stand modern music” rant of “Radio Nowhere”, but when he starts stringing some pretty elliptical similes through “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” things start to get interesting. The subtly political “Livin’ In The Future” references “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” musically, perhaps with ironic intention given its title. “Your Own Worst Enemy” is delicious: all sleighbells, harpsichord and strings, I can’t decide whether it sounds like The Beach Boys at their most baroque, R.E.M. impersonating The Beach Boys at their most baroque (see “At My Most Beautiful”) or a 21st century tribute to The Left Banke. “Gypsy Biker” is melancholic and marvellous, a wake at which the dress code is leather and a strong aroma of gasoline. The flickering, sepia-toned title track sounds like a newsreel warning dug up in a time capsule (“Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see”). “Last To Die” rages eloquently and allusively; the bittersweet “Long Walk Home” could be “My Hometown” weighted down with a few more decades of world-weary resignation, disillusionment and compromise. Perhaps the album’s finest moment is “Devil’s Arcade”: epic, but not in the “Jungleland” street opera sense of the word, it’s wreathed in mystery and ambiguity. Love, death and war are all in there somewhere, but the storyline remains tantalisingly oblique. In fact, it almost, almost sounds like The Blue Nile, which is not the kind of favourable comparison I bestow lightly.
Where Bruce’s recent albums have tended towards the dull and worthy, “Magic” is neither of these things: it’s a full-blooded rock ‘n’ roll experience that still manages to say things worth hearing. The best of these songs have a universal resonance he’s rarely demonstrated before, perhaps helped by the way he keeps uncharacteristically vague about details like names and locations. If you can get past that oppressive production, this is a marvellous, major work.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN Working On A Dream (Columbia)
Partially, at least, written and recorded at speed during breaks in the 2007/8 “Magic” tour, “Working On A Dream” is possibly Bruce’s most perplexing release yet. Coming after a string of albums of unimpeachable quality stretching back almost a decade, its often insubstantial subject matter and clichéd lyrics give the impression of a sloppy, throwaway work, and that’s not what we’d expect from The Boss, is it?
The eight-minute opener “Outlaw Pete” is the kind of rambling, shaggy dog story he hasn’t really treated us to since “Jungleland”, and so atypical is it of his recent work that it almost seems parodic at first listen. However, on an album whose best moments are subtly but indelibly marked by a Byrds influence it almost posits itself as the record’s “Chestnut Mare”. “My Lucky Day” wraps itself in the sound of classic Springsteen but never evokes the spirit, belittled as it is by clunking metaphors and the worst excesses of Brendan O’Brien’s muzzy AM ‘production’. Almost every track gets obfuscated by a kind of sonic gauze, rendering the normally welcome decision to spread the vinyl version over two discs a purely cosmetic act. The title track offers more of the same; although not explicitly political, it’s hard to listen to it without considering American political events over the last year or so; plainly, we’re not in “Nebraska” anymore. “Queen Of The Supermarket” is another of those moments when you might wonder whether he’s taking the piss, or at least question his motives. So many of these songs are about romance, built on subtle inflections or half-remembered moments, which is of course fine, but Bruce is no Paul Buchanan, and these songs are too often loaded down with trite imagery.
Happily, “What Love Can Do” redresses the balance, rich in Byrds, or maybe just Gene Clark, influences: it’s all there in the harmonies and the yearning songwriting. “This Life” models a delicious, “Pet Sounds”-era jangling introduction, slightly diluted by the song that trails behind it. “Good Eye”’s harmonica, distortion and blues structure sounds like he’s desperately riding some kind of nostalgia ticket, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”’ stolen title strengthens the suggestion that this album is tangentially imbued with the spirit of ’66, although its lilting country rock sounds pretty authentic. “Life Itself” is more Gene Clarkery, right down to Bruce’s vocals, with a guitar solo that could’ve fallen off the session tapes for “Eight Miles High”. When so much of the album seems regressive or inauthentic, moments like this provide hope for the future. That Gene Clark voice is trundled out again for “Surprise, Surprise”, but he says next to nothing with it (example lyric: “When the sun comes out tomorrow/It’ll be the start of a brand new day”).
After all this, it’s almost baffling to discover that the album’s two best tracks are tucked away at its close. Stylistically, if not thematically, linked, “The Last Carnival”, a sweet, sad elegy for organist Danny Federici, the first fallen E Streeter, and “The Wrestler”, Bruce’s theme for the excellent Darren Aronofsky / Mickey Rourke film, are quiet, considered pieces, tagged onto a record that too often confuses empty cliché for headline news.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN In Concert MTV Plugged (Columbia)
Recorded in the wake of The Boss hubristically releasing two mediocre albums on the same day (ah, the early 1990s...), he somewhat sabotaged the point of MTV's "Unplugged" franchise by turning up with an electric group comprised mostly of anonymous session musicians, this being a period of estrangement between Bruce and the E Street Band.
The set begins promisingly with the previously unreleased "Red Headed Woman", a nudge-wink procession of single-entendres that, performed by Bruce alone, borders on the realm of howling mountain music, something that, had it been enshrined on scratchy shellac 60 years earlier, would surely have wound up on a Harry Smith anthology. There are other highlights, notably when Springsteen reaches far back through his catalogue. A full band arrangement of "Atlantic City" is a worthy supplement to the bedroom-recorded solo original, with an almost Celtic feel to its melody, and no complaints can be levelled at fine versions of "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" and "Thunder Road" save that they plunge the rest of the set into even starker relief. Songs such as "Better Days", "Man's Job", "Human Touch", "Lucky Town", "Living Proof" and "My Beautiful Reward" are The Boss on autopilot, products of a satisfied mind that, if nothing else, conclusively demonstrate that Bruce needs both something to rail against and the E Street Band goading him to greatness. Even with a more sympathetic song selection, though, you'd still have to contend with the album's bright, brash production, all splashy and shallow, with none of the organic warmth that might be expected from a Springsteen show.
When belatedly released in the USA in 1997, "In Concert MTV Plugged" became Springsteen's lowest-charting album. With so many excellent Springsteen albums available, buy this one last, if at all.
ERIC MEOLA Born To Run: The Unseen Photos (Insight Editions)
Accurately described by its title, this attractively presented 12” square hardback volume contains a voluminous selection of outtakes from the two hour photo session that produced the iconic artwork for Bruce Springsteen’s kingmaking third album. There’s some brief scene-setting commentary from photographer Meola, and the pages are interspersed with the album’s lyrics. For me the latter emphasised how “Born To Run” was the last gasp for Springsteen the gutter poet; when he returned from years in legal limbo with “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” his songs would be pared to the narrative bone, functional rather than fantastic. Compare, for example, the words of “Night” with “Racing In The Street” for two dissimilar takes on the same theme.
That the images are great almost goes without saying. With his ragamuffin rocker ripped t-shirt style and Elvis badge and the supporting (literally) role of saxophonist Clarence Clemons in these shots, the pages record the final pieces of a persona locking into place. Whether all that’s enough to justify purchase depends rather on how much Bruce’s music means to you (and how much space there is on your coffee table) but to ameliorate any buyer’s remorse it should be noted that all the author’s proceeds are being donated to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, surely a Good Thing.