Friday, February 27, 2009

Artist Spotlight: Bruce Springsteen 1988 - 2009

Touchdown! Bruce Springsteen cements his place in rock & roll history with a triumphant set at the Super Bowl.

The first half of Bruce Springsteen's career 1972 - 1987 is the stuff of legend. His albums were practically flawless, his live shows were the Gold standard of endurance and entertainment and even his B Sides were better than most people's full records. In the mid - 80's, Springsteen was the musical equivalent of Superman: A dark haired, chiseled higher life form with the perfect life fighting for truth, justice and the American way. To many fans, Bbrruuucceee was the human embodiment of working class Americana. Bruce Springsteen was "The Boss".

Riding high on hits like "Born to Run", "Born in the U.S.A.", "Born in East L.A"-no wait, that last one was Cheech Marin, "Hungry Heart", Springsteen seemed unstoppable in 1987. His then recent marriage to pretty actress Julianne Phillips seemed to complete the picture of him being the ultimate American hero. But while on tour supporting his Tunnel of Love album (an album filled with romantic doubt, interestingly) pictures surfaced in the tabloids of Springsteen sitting with his background singer Patti Scialfa on his lap. Rumors flared about a steamy relationship between The Boss and his employee, rumors that proved to be true. Springsteen and Phillips divorced and the "perfect" public image of Springsteen was cracked. It was like finding out Superman was cheating on Lois Lane with Lana Lang. When talking to people at the time, many seemed to feel Springsteen could no longer claim the moral high ground he had touted in his music. In effect, The Boss had been fired by his public.

Springsteen married Scialfa in 1991 and moved to L.A., away from his famed Jersey roots. He broke up the E Street Band in search of a new sound and brought in session players to fill the gaps. By 1992 he was ready to return, armed with two simultaneous album releases a'la Guns N Roses. How would the public react?

Human Touch (1992)

The main record of the two being released was Human Touch, an album that continued Tunnel of Love's penchant for relationship songs. But where Tunnel dug in and had a sense of feeling and honesty, Human Touch sounds contrived and empty to me. There were some bright spots, the title track is a favorite of mine and the quiet With Every Wish was memorable if only for its parable like chorus. The rest of the album just kinda lays there, a slick sounding disc with pumped up guitars and a whopping beat (courtesy of the late Jeff Porcaro). 57 Channels is a risk that pays off with a spoken word delivery and throbbing bass line. Midway through recording, Springsteen brought in one former E Streeter Roy Bittan to help flesh out the music. His impact is noticeable, particularly on the near classic E Street sound of Roll of the Dice. But it also ends up being a cheat, Bittan's presence ties the sound so closely to Springsteen's previous work that the changes that are made hardly seem noticeable.

Lucky Town (1992)

The story is that Springsteen went back to the studio to record one more song for Human Touch and instead wrote a whole album. Though simultaenously released, it's considered Touch's junior and was virtually ignored. That was too bad, because Lucky Town was everything Human Touch wasn't: raw, relevant and a sense of honest feeling. It's Springsteen's most personal album, the one that I see get cited the most when fans relate their life events directly to his music. Lucky Town packs in the thrill of forbidden love (the title track), the pride of having children (Living Proof), the Scarlet letter shame of being found out (The Big Muddy), the loss of no longer being The Boss (Local Hero) and briefly casts an eye on the nihilism around him (Souls of the Departed). The stripped down rock sound of Lucky Town gives character that's missing in the haze of over production on its counterpart. It's not a GREAT record, but if you're a fan then this is a good one to hear.

Greatest Hits (1995)

Springsteen isn't an artist who lends himself well to single disc comp packages considering how many of his album tracks fans took to heart over the more promoted material. But the hit Streets of Philadelphia from the film Philadelphia demanded a cash in of some kind. That song, with its sparse mechanical drum beat and Springsteen mumbling over a wash of synths, was a huge hit song all over the radio and pointed into the direction he would take. For Greatest Hits, Springsteen reformed the E Street Band to record strong tracks like Murder Incorporated (one of my personal faves). Yet it was another sparsely arranged tune, Secret Garden, that hit the radio again and became the ersatz theme to the movie Jerry Maguire.

The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

True to form, following the two CD rock sound of his 1992 releases Springsteen went back to an acoustic format for his following disc. The Ghost of Tom Joad was touted as a return to Nebraska like starkness and Joad is pretty darn stark. Maybe it was living in L.A., no longer having a mandate to comment directly on middle America Springsteen championed a new set of people - migrant workers and people on the fringe. The Ghost of Tom Joad is a folky album of downbeat tales about the poor having wealthy America kick them in the face and leaving them desperate, robbing, killing, dealing drugs and dying forgotten. This album was hard for me to take, not because it was poorly written but because it had almost no melody (the excellent title song and Youngstown are the exceptions). It's like a book on tape with some guitar and keyboards. Still, years later the fan in me wants to give this disc another chance. So I did. The power and detail of the storytelling is impressive. Now that I'm older, I can appreciate the stories better even with the lack of melody. This is sit-down-with-Bruce-at-the-campfire-and-hear-sad-stories, it's an album I appreciate a little bit more now. And it might give you something to think about next time you see a group of day laborers hanging out near the hardware store.

Tracks (1999)

After decades of hearing how great Springsteen's unreleased material was, he finally put together a four CD set of this stuff. Much like tracking his career, the quality of the material is uniformly strong until you get to the last disc (the 90's). Great songs like the Rosalita jr. that is Thundercrack, the high speed "Dollhouse" and the rollicking "Where The Bands Are" proves that the rumors were true-Springsteen's throwaways were better than most other artists prime material. And the acoustic version of Born in the U.S.A. impressed me much more than the full band version ever did. At this time Springsteen brought back together the E Street band and garnered a lot of ill will for writing the song American Skin (41 Shots) about the New York City killing of an innocent man by police mistaking the man for a criminal. A pivotal track, "Skin" was the first time Springsteen would take the moral high ground in song in over ten years.

The Rising (2002)

Even with the E Street Band back in tow and the scandal of his cheating erased by time and his stable marriage to Scialfa, Springsteen still was not quite The Boss again. Then, 9/11 happened and Springsteen came flying back to action with an album to address it. Focusing his songwriting about the terrorist attack, victims and its effects, The Rising takes a look at sacrifice, heroism, loss and the need for communication. Tracks like Empty Sky, You're Missing and Into The Fire go to the heart of the matter. The rousing title track brings becomes a call to arms for the country to rise up against a common enemy. My City of Ruins was originally written with New Jersey in mind, it's inclusion at the end of this album made it the "go-to" song for media covering wide spread disasters. Musically it's a decent album, the E Street Band sound a little stiff to me and thematically it doesn't flow as smoothly as I thought it should. The Rising is a strong disc though and it propelled Springsteen back into Bosshood, he was once again the voice of the People.

Devils & Dust (2005)

After John Kerry's Presidential bid bit the er, dust (Kerry was strongly supported by Springsteen) The Boss released not an acoustic album but a more subdued rock album sans E Street. The title track solidified Springsteen's latest direction, creating music that tries to capture the times from his perspective. In this case delving into the confusion of Iraq from the first person point of view of an imagined soldier. Like Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils went into a series of character studies but with his Boss status regained Springsteen could broaden his approach to almost anyone. A mix of love, sex, loss and mojo are shot through Springsteen's story telling here. Controversy was sparked by Reno, a sort of Leaving Las Vegas: the not Sheryl Crow song detailing sex with a prostitute. For me, the highpoint was the high voiced All I'm Thinkin About which trust me is a song you never want to hear me sing. Or any song for that matter, but this one definitely.

We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions (2006)

Another critically acclaimed move that left me cold, Springsteen swerved into some ancient sounding folk music here. Once again I gave his music another chance, I was put off by the old tymey vibe the first time around. Still, this is Springsteen's most jubilant effort. Even when singing sad songs he sounds really happy. Maybe it's knowing that this was a one-off that makes me a little less critical of this album now. I enjoyed this disc in parts, O Mary Don't You Weep was fun as well as Pay Me My Money Down and We Shall Overcome. The use of older songs gave The Boss an opportunity to dig into Civil Rights and protest music in a safe form for the public. A pleasant curio, makes me want to ride a horse in a bowler hat and shoot someone with a Derringer. I have caught you cheating at the gentlemanly game of Black Jack sir, you card sharp! You foul fiend!

Magic (2007)

I initially thought this disc was about middle age, turns out it was a diatribe against the Bush years. In any context, this was easily the best Springsteen disc I had heard in a long time. The E Street Band, given some time off for Devils & Dust and Seeger, return and are on target for Magic. They are relaxed and fired up for full tilt rockers like Radio Nowhere or Last to Die. Some classic boardwalk strut hits Living in the Future while the Boss croons a bit to the swirling Girls in their Summer Clothes. By putting politics into a relationship song format, Springsteen is able to have his cake and eat it too. I was a little disappointed at first because there was nothing as classic as say "Dancing in the Dark", yet I played this disc for over a year and found new insight the longer I played it. By the end I liked this album a lot. An album that grows in quality over time, Magic shows a man taking a hard look at his Country and bemoaning its lost values. Long Walk Home sums up his stance most effectively and is a kickin song to boot. He really was the Boss again.

Working On A Dream (2009)

With E Street organist Danny Federici passing away and the nation in a serious recession you would think Springsteen would be even more downbeat. But he had shown the misery last time, now it was time to bring in the promise. A bookend to Magic, Springsteen seemed to feel a little more positive this time out. Where the last three albums found The Boss in a mood to protest about the direction of the Country, Working placed Springsteen between 60's reverie and hope for the modern day. Couched in orchestral ambiance, Springsteen takes a trip to remind us of what is great about America with an audio tour of modified hippie idealism. The whistling solo of the title cut, squiggly guitar lines of Life Itself and the old school organ playing of Surprise Surprise recall a flower power world of Peace and Love. And if anyone forgot the Boss was once called "the new Dylan", he gets really Dylany on Tomorrow Never Knows in full on "I Want You" mode. A touch of domesticity is also celebrated on cuts like Kingdom of Days or Queen of the Supermarket. This is Springsteen's most open and optimistic album that I can remember, though it's not quite as good as Magic. Happy music is a tough sell in rock & roll, often undercutting some of its power. However, Springsteen's an artist able to rise to the challenge and has made an album that is a good fit for the new Obama administration's themes. Working On A Dream is a winning disc that will give a smile right from the start when you realize the orchestra is pumping Kiss's "I Was Made For Lovin' You" during the first song Outlaw Pete.

Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl performance was the capper, his return to being spokesman / conscientious party guy for a generation was complete. Also riding high on a song for the film The Wrestler, Springsteen has performed the near impossible feat of remaining relevant while still retaining his classic rock status. Like Van Zandt shouted at the Bowl, it's Boss time!

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