Least to Most: Bruce – Born To Run

“One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of my bed, working on song ideas, and the words ‘born to run’ came into my head… I liked the phrase because it suggested a certain cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music I was hearing in my head.”

There’s probably very little I could add to anyone’s knowledge or appreciation of Born To Run, an album that’s undoubtedly at the top of many a list and is very likely many people’s favourite album of all time. ‘Born To Run’ may have taken six months to write but it and Born To Run changed everything for Bruce, both in terms of sales / success and writing. This was the album that lived up to the promise of ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, maintaining its excitement and drive “while delivering it’s message in less time and with a shorter burst of energy. This was a turning point, and it allowed me to open up my music to a far larger audience.”

It was this song that made sure the world would become aware of Springsteen in more ways than one. Neither his début or The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle had achieved the level of success that would make a record company throw money for studio time at him. He had to write something that would get him his last shot. He may be somewhat flippant about its origins (if not its impact) now but writing ‘Born To Run’  in early 1974 got him that chance – it was recorded during touring breaks (with drummer Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter*) and an early mix was released to radio in November of the same year. It’s popularity on radio meant previous Springsteen singles began picking up more airplay and gave him validation to get to work on the rest of the album.

Like, I’m sure, it was for many, ‘Born To Run’ was the first Bruce Springsteen song I was aware of. Specifically the 1987 video from a performance shot during Boss Mania. What strikes me most about the song, and the album as a whole, is the poetry of the lyrics. How many other FM rock songs used a lyric like the “the amusement park rises bold and stark” or “beyond the Palace, hemi-powered drones” found in ‘Born To Run’? And if we’re talking lyrics, let’s look at how the album kicks off:

“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.” Or what about the “One soft infested summer” of ‘Backstreets’ or ‘Jungleland’ with it’s “In a bedroom, locked. In whispers of soft refusal and, then, surrender”? Bruce may have claimed that “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all” (I’ll admit the double negative still bothers me some) but from a lyrical point of view, Born To Run saw the volley of words on Greetings.., the romance of The Wild, The Innocent… turn into something much more direct and universal (earlier characters and scenes were much more specific, that ‘screen door’ could be anywhere) and coupled with a new-found confidence from years of honing his act on the stage to produce some of Springsteen’s most evocative and memorable lines.

Work on the album is something of a legend in itself – Springsteen aware that it’s his make or break shot, agonising over takes and layering track upon track (there’s close to a dozen guitar tracks on the title song) as he struggled to explain the sounds he heard in his head, it lead to a changing of both studio location and began the changing of the guard with Appel vs Landau when the sessions got bogged down… or even the number of takes it took to get Clarence Clemons’ finest performance just right…

The thing is that such ardent efforts can sometimes lead to something that just sounds overworked**. In Born To Run though, it equals magic. You don’t hear what must have been a stressful session in those closing minutes of ‘Jungleland’ or the fact that it took nearly 14 months to record an album that fades out less than forty minutes later than a harmonica swept it in. What you hear is an album of meticulous detail and ambition underpinned by a songwriter hitting his stride and not holding back.

It’s packed with moments of magic – the intro of ‘She’s The One’*** giving away to the Bo Diddley beat that Springsteen admits he wrote just to hear Clarence blast all over, the jazzy film-noir intro for ‘Meeting Across The River’, the “hiding on the Backstreets” refrain, every single second of ‘Jungleland’ but especially it’s mid-point swing and ‘this ain’t over yet’ sax break….

Every song on this album works on its own. The biggest ‘hits’ from Born To Run – the title track, ‘Thunder Road’ ‘Jungleland’ – all stand as great songs in their own right but (and I urge you to go and do so) work best when played in sequence, they belong together. They ebb and flow as a story across one magnum opus and create one of the greatest albums ever made.

I will say, though, that it’s worth making sure that you get a decent master of this album. The first one I had… the remastering for CD was pretty crap. The version (that I guess is now in standard production) that came with the 30th Anniversary box really jumps out at you.

*If you’re only gonna be on one Bruce Springsteen song….

**Ahem; Human Touch

***Bruce wasn’t even sure if he should put this one on the album

Least to Most: Bruce – Tunnel of Love

“Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
You me and all that stuff we’re so scared of”

In June 1984 Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA. It was the most successful album in America in 1985 (the year following its release), shifted over 30 million copies, spawned SEVEN Top Ten singles, saw Springsteen shift from selling out arenas to stadiums and launched Boss Mania. Just as America’s celluloid heros took the form of muscle-bound Vietnam vets, a gym-enhanced Springsteen preached his own unique take of Heartland Rock to the masses from the radio to stages around the world and MTV as Bruce embraced the video format.

So how do you follow that? If you’re Bruce Springsteen, you demur from the expected. Exhausted and, according to many a report, changed by the success of USA (how you could you not be?), Springsteen took something of a break by his standards and focused on his personal life. At the peak of Boss Mania, Bruce met and married actress Julianne Phillips and sought the settled down personal life that had thus far eluded him. He kept a low profile living on the west coast for a year then, in 1986, logged a series of solo sessions in his home studio, Thrill Hill West. But, with a market and fan base hungry for new product, those sessions were abandoned and focus shifted to preparing his first live album. Live 1975-1985 was released against advance orders of 1.5 million.

As 1987 got under way Bruce headed back to New Jersey and began work on his next studio album, cutting three songs in one day. This time round, though, the writing took a different direction and most of the recordings were completed alone and with little involvement from the E Street Band*. Springsteen made a conscious decision to step back from the bombast.

“I really enjoyed the success of Born in the U.S.A., but by the end of that whole thing, I just kind of felt “Bruced” out. I was like “Whoa, enough of that.” You end up creating this sort of icon, and eventually it oppresses you….So when I wrote Tunnel of Love, I thought I had to reintroduce myself as a songwriter, in a very noniconic role. And it was a relief.”

Tunnel of Love is often referred to as the point at which Bruce began writing about men and women in relationships. That’s certainly not true – he’d been doing so for most of his career – only those relationships were more ‘fairytale’ (bleak or joyous) and told from the somewhat distant standpoint of the loner image Springsteen’s previous lack of commitment in the arena had afforded him. No; Tunnel of Love is Springsteen’s first set of truly nuanced, intricate, intimate and mature relationship songs that handle adult relationships and, yes, chiefly, marriage.

In focusing on his own relationship and putting those thoughts to song, Bruce created his most personal album to that point. It was clear that for the most part, these songs – besieged by inner demons – were based on personal experience. Of course, this inward focus didn’t please all. When he played the opener (the sparse ‘Ain’t Got You’) to Steven Van Zandt, it led to one of the biggest fights the pair had had- “I’m, like, ‘What the fuck is this?'” recalls Van Zandt. “And he’s, like, ‘Well, what do you mean, it’s the truth. It’s just who I am, it’s my life.’ And I’m like, ‘This is bullshit. People don’t need you talking about your life. Nobody gives a shit about your life. They need you for their lives. Thats your thing. Giving some logic and reason and sympathy and passion to this cold, fragmented, confusing world – that’s your gift. Explaining their lives to them. Their lives, not yours.'”

For an album opener, Ain’t Got You, is an odd one. I imagine it was sequenced in that way to give as clear an indication as possible that this isn’t Born in the USA 2. But it’s ‘Tougher Than The Rest‘ that sets the tone for the album – layered, synthesiser-heavy sound with a bit of menace and shot through with personal lyrics.  For my money (and my blog), that personal insight adds a truth and grit to these songs that had erstwhile been absent from Springsteen’s relationship songs and look for a larger goal. No longer do Bruce’s characters jump in a car and go looking for a promised land, Tunnel of Love (as with Nebraska) finds them dealing with the fact that the answers to their troubles lie with themselves. In ‘Cautious Man’ Bill Horton even heads down to the highway but “when he got there he didn’t find nothing but road”.

The album isn’t entirely without the sheen and polish that would lure radio, though and Springsteen threads his quieter, more subdued and introspective songs around a roster of FM-friendly tunes. The album’s centre piece ‘Brilliant Disguise‘ (which Springsteen has referred to as containing the real crux of the album in its lyrics) was a Top Five hit and a further four of its songs were released as singles** including the album’s sole out-and-out rock tune ‘Spare Parts. Personally, my favourite of those is ‘One Step Up’ – that simple but effective melody that ticks away throughout just clicks perfectly for me.

Given the events that followed its release, Tunnel of Love is mostly viewed as Springsteen’s ‘divorce album’ – he’d soon part ways with both his wife and the E Street Band – and so it tends to be signposts for this that are looked for in the lyrics. Certainly ‘One Step Up’ with “we’ve given each other some hard lessons lately
but we ain’t learnin” fits that mould but to single-track the album in such a way would be way off as it’s much more of a multi-dimensional album than that. Songs like ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’ are those of a man still looking for the salvation of love (“They say he travels fastest who travels alone, but tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home”).

Still, with the hindsight of history, the gruff “Thanks Juli” in the liner notes, it’s going to be hard for Tunnel of Love to be seen as anything other than an insight into the state of the Springsteen’s marriage. Slipping into the jet stream from Boss Mania meant that Tunnel of Love did well upon release though Springtseen’s own attempts to pare down the hysteria, the hushed atmospherics of the album and the retreat from the limelight that followed has meant that this has become one of his most over-looked albums and one barely touched upon live any more. Perhaps that’s down to it’s meaning for Springsteen himself – as Bob Dylan said of his own similarly-themed album Blood On The Tracks: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album, it’s hard for me to relate to that. You know, people enjoying that type of pain.”

For me Tunnel of Love is one of Springsteen’s very best – that’s why it’s up here in the list as it’s listened to so very often. Lyrically I don’t believe he’s ever been so sharp and insightful. Yes, the production is a little 80’s but it’s nowhere near as over punched as USA – hell, at times the vocals are clearly cut in a small room – and there’s so much more to this album than often considered and more revealed with each listen and the passing of time and experience. One summary I found while putting this together gets it right on the nail so I’ll finish with that and urge all to give this gem a fresh spin: “The songs are about men and women who flirt, have sex, fall in love, get married, get bored, have sex with other people, and wind up stuck in the middle of that dark night from the second disc of The River.”

*While Tunnel of Love was the first real studio album to name the band, the E Street barely feature – Clarence Clemons’ sax is missing completely and his only credit is for backing vocals on ‘When You’re Alone‘ (I guess he’s somewhere in the mix). It marked as big a change to his established sound as Nebraska did and was part of Springsteen’s belief that he’d achieved all he could with the E Street Band’s sound – even on the following tour he swapped positions around to try and mix things up.

**Though not all were released in every territory, Springsteen perhaps wary of over exposure following USA.

Currently Listening

It’s been a real pressure cooker of a week so time to blog has not been permitting – no opportunity to kick into the final three on the Bruce Least to Most series or any of the other posts sitting in ‘drafts’.

Here, though, is a quick surmise of those tunes that I’ve been listening to of late.

Ryan Adams – Shiver and Shake

Holy shit is Prisoner good. More than being a divorce album this is one of Ryan Adams’ finest. Gorgeous layers and echoes of Tunnel of Love Springsteen and drenched in dollops of that sun-kissed, late-80’s AOR vibe that so many have embraced of late (see Haim, War on Drugs etc) as to sound delicious and lyrics (“I miss your loving touch, I miss your embrace, but if I wait here any longer I’m gonna fade away”) that are more open and deft than he’s sung for some time. I don’t think I’ve played a new record as much as I have this one in a long time.

Tool – Ænema

I’ve really gotten back into this album over the last couple of weeks – I was determined to introduce my wife to the band but their unwillingness to stream and the fact that their albums still sell at ‘standard’ price means it’s not so easy but I picked this one up at a decent price and it hasn’t left the car since.  Any album so unabashed in its Bill Hicks reverence is gonna be ok; “Learn to swim, see you down in Arizona Bay”

think my wife dug it. I know my three-year-old son loves it though I’m now having to be more cautious as to the lyrical content of songs he hears. I don’t want him saying “Fuck L Ron Hubbard” after all. Although…

잠비나이 (Jambinai) – Connection

A couple of weeks ago I found (well, my wife pointed it out and encouraged me to go in) a really cool little independent vinyl-only record store in Canterbury with a great name – Vinylstore Jr. The guy had just dropped Jambinai’s album on the turntable. They’re a South Korean (obviously not North) post-rock band, their label describes them as “less like a band than a force of nature, fusing the full dramatic range of post-rock dynamics to Korean folk roots to create an exhilarating, vivid and unique fusion. ”

 

Blog Tour: Cursed by Thomas Enger

img_2005From the PR: “When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­‐wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son. With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­‐wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history. ”

“It’s like having a gun to your head”, being a dad, according to Henning Juul: “You go around being frightened the whole time. Frightened that something might happen… And you think that all the awful stuff you read about in the papers – it won’t happen to you and your child; it only happens to other people’s kids.” Juul, you see, is living every parent’s nightmare – his son was killed. As Henning and his son slept the apartment they were in was set alight as a warning – Juul’s investigations having come too close to some presumably powerful and truly nasty people. All of which, I understand (and please correct me if I’m wrong) happened before the events of the first Henning Juul novel, Burned.

So here we are with Cursed, the fourth entry in the Henning Juul series and it’s an absolute belter that cost me a fair bit of sleep in my reluctance to put it down. I’ve not read the previous novels in this series but I never felt that I was lost or missing anything for having not yet done so (only that I now need to go back and start at the beginning as this was such a good read) as Thomas Enger does a great job of bringing you up to speed without being heavy handed.

As Juul continues to search for the man who set alight his apartment and delve deeper into Oslo’s dark underbelly with some memorable scenes and characters, his ex-wife Nora is asked to investigate the disappearance of Hedda Helberg.

Having discovered the motivations and back story behind Juul’s investigations I honesty didn’t expect Nora’s case to be able to compete in terms of either drama or grip, but then I do like to be surprised by a book and the supposed missing-person case of Hedda Helberg soon becomes just as demanding of attention as slowly but surely a web of deceit and lies surrounding one of Norway’s wealthiest families is pulled apart.

Both of these investigations and narratives have the slow-burning, intricate and meticulous plotting that I so enjoy in a good thriller and that the two gradually become linked as they gather both pace and intrigue mean there’s zero chance of putting it down. The switch between narrative focuses proving a great device as it allows for a fuller view of each of the characters.

It’s hard to read Cursed and not be moved by the loss that Nora and Henning have endured while also noticing the difference between the two characters and how the death of their son has affected them both. Nora slowly but surely moving forward in life, back to work and in a new relationship, all the while carrying a ball that their son played with in her bag. Juul – presumably blaming himself in many a way – is  driven by nothing but finding justice for his son, his entire being devoted to the cause. The tragic and heartbreaking (seriously where is the Orenda Gut Check warning on this one?) back story makes this novel all the more compelling.

Cursed just about has the lot; intrigue from the off,  tightly weaved plots that pull you right in, plenty of twists, gritty and scarred lead characters and enough emotional heft and resonance to floor come the final reveal – all underpinned by a back story and over-riding story arc that ensures the Henning Juul series demands attention.

A complex, taught and thoroughly gripping read, Thomas Enger’s Cursed is a first-rate character-driven thriller that doesn’t disappoint.

Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the other stops on the Cursed Blog Tour.

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Least to Most: Bruce – Nebraska

“I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.”

bruce_springsteen_-_nebraskaIt opens like countless Springsteen songs before (and since) with a guy and his girl going for a ride but with that opening verse’s change in direction to the dark, it’s clear that Nebraska is is a very different entry in the Springsteen catalogue.

It was the precursor to the lo-fi, bedroom recording fad would inform countless imitations in years to come as every singer/songwriter who fancied their salts as a ‘serious artiste’ grabbed an acoustic and holed themselves up with a four-track recorder in an effort to make their own Nebraska. But, in doing so, they’re overlooking the one key factor about this album which means that they fail in that element – Bruce never set out to record an album of such intimacy; the songs on Nebraska were meant as demos which he then went on to play to his band and try and capture full E Street versions.

After the mammoth sessions for previous albums like The River and Darkness On The Edge of Town, Springsteen realised that a huge amount of time was being spent in the studio working on song ideas. He’d go in with songs half-written or ready, record, take a break, write some more…  So he asked his engineer to find him some way of recording at home, so he could get down his demos ahead of the studio and reduce (expensive) session time.

As was the way with Bruce at the time, he was in a writing storm and cut a lot of demos – more than would make it to Nebraska. His manager was the first to hear them all, he got a cassette containing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, ‘Starkweather’ (which would become the title cut), ‘Atlantic City’, ‘Mansion on the Hill’, ‘Born in the USA’, ‘Johnny 99’, ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Losin’ Kind’, ‘State Trooper’, ‘Used Cars’, ‘Wanda (Open All Night)’, ‘Child Bride’ (which would go on to become ‘Working On The Highway’), ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Highway Patrolman’ and ‘Reason To Believe’. Songs that he said “were so dark they concerned me on a friendship level”.

While his manager wasn’t so sure, Springsteen was convinced he had the basics of his next album. But – as always – there was some time to spent before they’d be released. First he and Steven Van Zandt produced a second album for Gary U.S Bonds (for which Bruce wrote another seven songs) before trying to capture the songs with the E Street Band*. Legend has it that he walked around for weeks with the 4-track recordings on cassette in his back pocket as he tried, and failed, to capture versions of those songs that he was happy with. According to Steven Van Zandt it was he who intervened:

“I said to him, ‘Listen, I know this is a bit strange but I honestly think this is an album unto itself and I think you should release it.’ And he was like ‘What do you mean? It’s just demos for the band.’ And I’m like ‘I know you didn’t intended for this to be recorded but I just know greatness when I hear it, okay? It’s my thing, it’s why I’m a record producer and that’s why I’m your friend and I’m just telling you I think your fans will just love this and I think it’s actually an important piece of work. Because it captures this amazingly strange, weirdly cinematic kind of dreamlike mood. I don’t know what it is. All I know is I know greatness when I hear it and this is it, okay? And this deserves to be heard I think people will love it and I think it’s a unique opportunity to actually release something absurdly intimate.'”

Thinking about it, the folks at Columbia must have had some inkling as to what was to come after this one to have taken that bet – after the success of The River and ‘Hungry Heart’ to get them to agree to put out such a non-commercial album, even without any fanfare, as-is must have meant Jon Landau’s negotiating skills were at the forefront, promising the next one would be a hit maker.

From Nebraska, though, only two songs would be released as singles – ‘Atlantic City’ and  ‘Open All Night’ and those would only be released in the UK and Europe.

My introduction to this album outside of ‘Atlantic City’ on Greatest Hits (I always loved the line “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back”) came via the closing credits on an episode of The Sopranos in 1999 as ‘State Trooper’ pulsated hypnotically over the credits. I found it hard to connect the sound I was hearing to the man behind ‘Born In The USA’. I went and bought Nebraska (bundled in a ‘Nice Price’ double with Darkness On The Edge of Town that still barely leaves my car) the next day and it served as my first Springsteen album (compilations excluded) and a real introduction to brilliance of his craft.

I think Nebraska‘s beauty certainly lies in its recording, the rawness and immediacy make for a great listen and their relative brevity (by Serious Springsteen standards) mean that listening to the album in one sitting makes for an absorbing 40 minutes that isn’t as austere of heavy as, perhaps, the cover might suggest with songs like ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Open All Night’ adding some upbeat, urgency to proceedings.

Nebraska saw those characters that Springsteen had, with Born To Run, put into cars on a journey to the promised land confront the hard, bitter truth that not everybody arrives and some have to deal with the fact that “there’s just a meanness in this world” that his narrative had, thus far, only skirted. It was the full album realisation of the writing paths he began walking with some of The River‘s more serious songs and would continue to return to (less successfully) later in his career when he felt the need to explore beyond the confines of a full-band sound. This was Springsteen bringing new, literary influences into his songwriting and not blinking in the face of harsh realisations. It’s a slab of brilliance that, three and a half decades later, still sounds vital and compelling especially as, despite it all, at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.

 

*The Electric Nebraska sessions have become something of a Holy Grail amongst Springsteen devotees. At times it varied between just how many songs were tackled but, in 2010, Max Weinberg confirmed the band had tackled every one of them, he also said the album was “killing”. In his own book Springsteen, too, confirmed the existence of Electric Nebraska but has, previously, also said that the fan-given title for the sessions in misleading. In his book, Songs, he pointed out that they weren’t all “rock” arrangements – Max would play a light percussion on some or Roy Bittan a synth pad.

Many critics have argued, as Landau stated “the right version of Nebraska was released” – drawing their argument from the live versions of those songs like ‘Atlantic City’ or ‘Johnny 99’ that would feature full band versions. BUT… I’ll argue that to analyse it in that way is a mistake. The band are playing fleshed out versions of the arrangement that was released. A song wouldn’t necessarily have taken the same arrangement in a full-band casting. Take ‘Born In The USA’ and its evolution from demo to stadium thumper, or pretty much any Springsteen song’s evolution. Even ‘Blood Brothers’ has numerous arrangements. The shape and arrangement these tracks may have evolved into with further Electric Nebraska session (there’s arguments that poor recording experience on the side of the engineer for these sessions was also to blame for their curtailing) will likely never be revealed though.

Blog Tour: Sealskin by Su Bristow

img_1900Sometimes a book will come along that hypnotises you just so and holds you so much under its spell that when it comes time to even attempt to do it justice in a review that it becomes pretty much impossible to put into words just how bloody good it is and those superlatives that are known merely prove inadequate. Su Bristow’s Sealskin is one of those books.

Winner of 2013’s Exeter Novel Prize, Sealskin is based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people. More specifically the legend of a fisherman who, one night at full moon, witnessed nine seals who came to shore, took off their skins and became beautiful young women dancing on the beach. In Su Bristow’s novel that fisherman watches the women dance and, unable to contain himself, makes a terrible mistake. That mistake has ramifications for both him, the young woman and the small fishing community where life is hard, the sea is all powerful and belief is as strong as fact.

So what could I say about this book now that it’s my turn on the blogtour? This book for which superlatives are not enough and others have heaped such well deserved praise on. What could I add?

I could say that it’s haunting, that it’s captivating and mesmerising. I could point out that Sealskin is one of the best things I’ve read and I could go on to say that Su Bristow’s narrative is so delicious that it pulls you slowly and completely into a story so satisfying and equal parts joyous and heartbreaking (utterly so) that it leaves you yearning for more and I could (should) also point out that when you do turn the final page the immersion within its world is so total that you will get withdrawal symptoms and find yourself looking around at your environment as if it were alien with an almighty book hangover.

I could say that I found this beautiful novel completely mesmerising that I barely put it down. I could mention that the characters are all so perfectly nuanced and full as to leave me wondering if this were legend or fact.

I could point out how Su Bristow’s portrayal of this bleak place’s calm, stoic acceptance of hardship and grief (“He could just remember his little sister, stumbling after him down the path, crying when she stung her hand on the nettles, laughing when he tickled her. She had it all to learn, too, when the fever burned her life away.”) is so much more affecting than anything I’ve read in some time.

I could say all of this but what I really want to say is that this Sealskin is such an absolute essential addition to any self-respecting book lovers’ collection that if you don’t love it there’s probably something wrong with you.

Yes, that’s what I’ll say: you need Sealskin by Su Bristow on your bookshelf. But only after you’ve read it and let it possess you.

I’ll also say a huge thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending me a copy of this to review and for continuing to take chances on and publishing such bloody good literature.

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Least to Most: Bruce – The River

the_river_bruce_springsteen_front_coverIn 1979 Springsteen set about making the follow up to The Darkness on the Edge of Town. He had some hold overs from that album’s sessions (‘Sherry Darling’, ‘Ramrod’ and ‘The Ties that Bind’ for starters) but at this point he was  writing songs at the same frequency most pass gas.

It was meant to be a single album that lead away from the more severe sound and approach of its predecessor and showcase the breadth of styles and joyousness of his band’s live sets of the time. Ten tracks, in, out and released late 1979 with a tour to follow, of course. And it almost was. A ten song album, The Ties That Bind was prepared and ready but then… Bruce held back. Because perched at the end of that single album was ‘The River’.

It’s a monumental song. When I got into Bruce via the 1995 Greatest Hits it was this one that caught my ear and made me pay attention. It still does. As with most of the more serious songs on The River the lyrics and themes aren’t as poetic as he’d written before but it’s the belief with which he sings them, the genuine investment which he puts into them that makes them so essential – these aren’t pop songs that can just be sung or waltzed trough, the material demands presence over phoning it in and if you try to sing these songs without giving it your all it will tell. From ‘The River’ to ‘Point Blank’ there’s no argument for a second that he isn’t 100% IN these songs and even after performing them countless times, live it’s clear that this is still the case . That’s why they reverberated at the time and why they continue to do so.

Writing what would become the title track of the eventual double had opened a new avenue, and Springsteen would go on to write more songs about men and women, their relationships and coming to terms with life’s hardships and would develop a much larger album to contain what he saw as the paradoxes of life; the joy and celebration of rock ‘n’ roll, but also its hardness. He wanted an album that continued the stories and themes he’d begun writing about on Darkness but one that didn’t wallow in them and would let in the light with the music that made his concerts such a revelation. He wrote so many more songs that three of those from the original single album were consigned to vaults (including ‘Loose Ends‘ much to Van Zandt’s chagrin). *

For my money it’s a good thing Springsteen did pull back the single album. That first one didn’t contain tracks like ‘Point Blank’ or ‘Independence Day’ (both further holdovers from The Darkness on the Edge of Town) and those other songs like  ‘Fade Away’, ‘Drive All Night’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’ rank among his finest. I’ve already said that ‘Point Blank’ is one of my favourites elsewhere so will instead leave ‘Drive All Night’ here, one that I discovered via the underrated film Copland.

As important as I think those more serious songs are, the album’s duality is what marks it out in Bruce’s catalogue. There’s nothing really like it in terms of the full-spectrum or in terms of its sound. After years of sessions, agonising over track listing and capturing the right sound in the cavernous room they were recording in, the album that arrived was something much rawer than its predecessor. Gone were the wall-of-sound theatrics of Born To Run or the tense energy of Darkness.. in their place was a looser, more raucous garage-rock style (Van Zandt with a much larger production role) with a raw, jubilant sound and some of Springsteen’s finest vocals.

While there’s a couple of less-than-classics on the first half,  (but even Crush On You has a catchy-as-a-cold riff)  kicking off with ‘The Ties That Bind’ there’s a run of pure gold on it: ‘Jackson Cage, Two Hearts, Independence Day, Hungry Heart, Out In The Street (“oh oh oh oh oh!”) that makes for a near unbeatable half-hour of listening and was his most unabashed run of rock music to date.

Even the second half of the album, home to some of Springsteen’s heaviest material (just look at the lyrics to the closing ‘Wreck on the Highway’), features some of his most out-and-out direct rock music. From ‘Cadillac Ranch’ to the most obvious, daftly joyous and infectious mission-statement he’s made:

Whenever you read those stories about Bruce turning up at local shows and getting up on stage to cut loose, you know (hope) it’s going to be with those songs that represent the lighter half of The River and his catalogue. He’s not going to get up draw out ‘Point Blank’ or ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ he’s going to strap on the guitarist’s spare and blast through those straight-ahead, life affirming songs that he does so bloody well like ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ or he’ll give it the “let’s roadhouse” and kick into ‘Ramrod’ and the place will go fucking nuts.

So with so much pure Springsteen gold, why doesn’t it sit at the top? Personally, I think Bruce is at his best when focused. A double album is a lot to give attention to – twenty tracks doesn’t necessarily make for one session and the jarring nature of it can at times mean a slight stumble in flow. It’s a sod on vinyl but even when playing it in the car on CD, by the time I’ve made it through to the end of the second disc, the start of the album all the way back at ‘The Ties That Bind’ seems like a long time ago and isn’t as fresh in the ears as, say, ‘Radio Nowhere’ is come ‘Devil’s Arcade.’  However, it’s easily Top Five (and I’m sure it’s atop many a list) because what comes between those two distant points is so fucking good.

Even Steven Van Zandt admitted; “If it had been a single album, it would have been appreciated more, especially if he had put more of the pop-rock stuff on there. It would have been our biggest album. All you gotta do is throw on “The River” — that’s all the content you need. A little of Bruce’s content goes a long way. But he felt he had to do eight or ten songs like that.”

It was appreciated – critics fell over themselves to hand plaudits to its “weighty conclusions, words to live by”**, it topped the charts in the US and did well elsewhere too, going on to shift sufficient copies to sit immediately behind his two Born.. albums in terms of overall sales. Yet it’s often overlooked in his catalogue, not only because of its length but because, perhaps, it also sits between those two periods – it’s nestled between the breakout of Born To Run and Darkness and the massive explosion of Born In The USA.

With twenty tracks written and recorded at a period that Springsteen and the E Street Band were untouchable, it’s  got the lot: from the silly (‘Crush On You’) to the serious (‘Wreck On The Highway’), everything in between, including Bruce’s first Top Ten hit (‘Hungry Heart’). The River is the best one-stop slab introduction for anyone who wants to get a grip on every aspect of his writing.

Highlights: We’re well into 5 Star territory here so, as before: The whole bloody thing.

*these are far from the only songs recorded during this period consigned to the vaults. Most of Disc 2 of Tracks contained songs from this period whose omission boggled the brain and then The Ties That Bind: The River Collection set offered even more. My favourite:

**Rolling Stone, of course.