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.

Least to Most; Bruce – I’m just around the corner to the light of day

So I’ve cleared the half way post. Hell, I’ve cleared the 75% mark and I’m about to go charging into the Top 5 like a hot stepping hemi with a four on the floor… *

As such I thought that, with 15 of 20 (given that I included both Tracks and The Promise) it was time for a quick re-cap of the order so far.

It’s been quite the challenge – a post per album and twenty total – but I’m happy to have managed thus far and have enjoyed the process, rediscovering many a near-forgotten gem or detail while listening to each one again and it’s served as a real reminder of just what a prolific and talented song writer Bruce is. Even on those albums that sit at the Least end of this spectrum there’s a good few songs that would make a compilation. Perhaps that’s the next compilation challenge – one, and only one, song from every release… In hindsight, while there’s a fair few bands / artists I reckon I could run this same format I don’t know that I’d go so far as a post per album. Then again, not so many acts have made the 20 album mark.

Again, this isn’t Worst to Best, this is purely personal preference and I could understand how an argument could be made for any one of these to be somebody’s favourite. I don’t think Bruce has mad a ‘bad’ album and even those at the tail end are better than many an artist at their best.

20. Human Touch (1992) Link

19. High Hopes (2014) Link

18. Lucky Town (1992) Link

17. Working on a Dream (2009) Link

16.  Wrecking Ball (2012) Link

15. Devils and Dust (2005) Link

14. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) Link

13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) Link

12. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1972) Link

11. The Promise (2010) Link

10. Born In The USA (1984) Link

9. The Rising (2002) Link

8. Tracks (1998) Link

7. Magic (2007) Link

6. The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973) Link

5. …..

 

*answers on a postcard.

Current Plays

I’m still on a bit of a Bruce break before delving into the Top 5* next week so here’s a little of what I’m playing at the moment.

Jets To Brazil – Wishlist

After the demise of the punk-leaning Jawbreaker, Blake Schwarzenbach went indie-rock with the more melodic Jets To Brazil. I love the line “If ever I should seem to take for granted, this lovely life that I have been handed, darling don’t just stand there, come knock me around.”

JJ Grey & Mofro – King Hummingbird

A band I found via House of Cards and have explored a little more since. A real earthy, blues/rock jam band feel with plenty to enjoy. This is from their fifth album Georgia Warhouse and is the kind of ballad that Chris Robinson would have given his right arm to write / sing.

Chamberlain – Lovely and Alone

On the subject of bluesier sounds…. I got into Chamberlain thanks to one of those long-since departed record shops that had notes / guides from the staff: “for fans of…” “..latest project from…” sort of thing. Formed by members of hardcore band Split Lip, Chamberlain saw them move into a more mature sound and focused on the vocals, never really cut through despite getting a pretty solid fan following. I got hold of Exit 263 while they were still around and later found out that it’s actually a collection of demos they compiled for release after it was rejected by their label. Shame…

Talking Heads – And She Was

Because nothing beats a classic.

One more?

Prince – Sometimes It Snows In April

Because his music is now up on Spotify I’ve been building my own Purple play list. Sat at the piano saying goodbye to his alter-ego from the Under The Cherry Moon film…

 

 

*Tricky as, definitely for the Top 4, the order from this point could change daily.

**They’re like buses: you wait years and then two Black Crowes references in as many posts. Maybe I’ll dust off The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion

Revisiting: 14 Songs

Background:

I got into The Replacements too late. I had to, really, they split up before I was eleven… What I mean is that they’re one of those bands that when I finally did get into them I hungrily devoured the lot and couldn’t believe that I’d left it so long to be hearing these songs. They’re a band that cast a long shadow and I’d heard more about them and their influence before I’d even heard a note of their music.

In fact, my first introduction was via the two Paul Westerberg solo tracks on the Singles soundtrack*. Having made the connection between singer and former band I went back, then forward into Westerberg’s solo discography.

14_songs_paul_westerberg_album_-_cover_artConsidered by many as pioneers of the alt-rock scene and with a legacy that’s at odds with the success they achieved during their run, The Replacements blew out of Minneapolis in 1979 as punk rock band whose début album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, was a raw, raucous affair but, by the release of the follow up, Hootenany, the band was quickly evolving and songs like ‘Within Your Reach‘ marked the way forward as elements of blues, folk and chiming pop were bought to the fore along with Westerberg’s insightful and maturing song-writing skills. The difference between ‘Kids Don’t Follow‘ and the beautiful ‘Achin’ To Be‘ was massive.

Success wasn’t to be theirs, though. As much as they may have been at the forefront of the alt-rock scene, the self-destructive nature of the band meant that by the time the world started to pay attention, they were already imploding and they’re remembered more for potential than for breaking through. Poor production, famously disastrous live shows and TV appearances and internal strife meant that 1990’s All Shook Down would be their final album. That album was originally intended to be Paul Westerberg’s first solo album and, as such, features predominantly session musicians. The label talked him into making it a Replacements album. It would be three years before his first solo album would arrive…

The band (well, Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg) would reform 22 years later for a series of live shows, a victory lap for the praise and recognition they’d received after their split. There were a few abortive attempts at recording but Westerberg’s heart wasn’t in it and during the final shows he’d decorate his t-shirts with giant letters, eventually spelling out the missive: I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU. NOW I MUST WHORE MY PAST.

14 Songs:

So, on a bit of a Bruce break**, I flicked as randomly as possible through my iTunes and landed on the brilliant ‘Runaway Wind’ from 14 Songs, which lead to digging out the CD and spending a few days with it in the car for the first time in a long time.

While it’s not exactly a masterpiece, it’s bloody good and starts with a run of four great songs, kicking off with a highlight, ‘Knockin’ On Mine’:

Don Was was a big fan of this album and would play it daily while recording The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge. I can get that, I love the guitar tones on this album and there’s a few on here that are clearly indebted to the Stones – this, the loose grove of ‘Dice Behind Your Shades’ and ‘Silver Naked Ladies‘ whose great instrumentation, bluesy guitar, honky-tonk piano (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and outright Jagger impression are so obvious I’d lay money on Westerberg having done a Jagger Shuffle*** dance in the studio. It’s a shame the lyrics are on the cack side. Don Was would produce Westerberg’s third solo effort and told him that Keith Richards would spend each morning cranking ‘Knockin’ On Mine’ out at full volume.

It’s assumed that ‘World Class Fad’ is about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain… There’s an oft-commented upon similarity between the pair’s bands and Courtney Love was a big Replacements fan, her band often murdering covering ‘Unsatisfied‘. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes**** had said “Yeah, Nevermind is a great Replacements record” which must’ve really cheesed Cobain. In the liner notes to the Westerberg’s Best Of (the brilliantly titled Besterberg) he slyly comments that “someone very famous thought it was about him” neither denying or confirming that it was… if that’s the case then “You wax poetic about things pathetic, as long as you look so cute” must have stung a bit. It’s a great tune though.

There was always a dichotomy in The Replacements between the soft and the hard. Westerberg has surmised it as “Sometimes you just love the little acoustic songs, and other times you want to crank the goddamn amp up, and those two parts of me are forever entwined.” That meant songs like ‘Here Comes A Regular’ rubbed shoulders with ‘Bastards of Young’ on Tim and the same is true in his early solo work though, free from the burden of being in a ‘punk’ band, there’s not so much hesitancy to bring out the acoustics or slower material.

‘Runaway Wind’ – for example is a great tune. Originally written for and turned down by Robin Zander, it’s vocal was recorded in just one take and features a brilliant Westerberg lyric: “You trade your telescope for a keyhole, Make way for the grey that’s in your brown, as dreams make way for plans, see ya watch life from the stands.”

Elsewhere tracks like ‘Even Here We Are’ and ‘Black Eyed Susan‘ are delicate, gentle acoustic numbers whose lo-fi production choices make them sound like lost, dusted-off gems sandwiched as they are between glossier sounding tunes and ‘Things’ is a delightfully sloppy yet endearing number. ‘Black Eyed Susan’ was recorded in Westerberg’s kitchen and the sound and lack of success in capturing a better take meant it made the album while ‘Things’ showed that even in his romantic tunes, Westerberg could add a tinge of sadness: “I could use some breathing room but I’m still in love with you.”

Even the best Replacements albums had some outright howlers buried in amongst the gold (I really don’t think anyone is going to make a case for ‘Lay It Down Clown’) and on 14 Songs that particular number is ‘A Few Minutes Of Silence’ – if the album had been called 13 Songs the track wouldn’t have been missed.

With the comic, cynical take on plastic surgery, ‘Mannequin Shop‘ (“You look bitching you look taut, I`m a itchin’ to know what was bought?”) oddly sequenced between the harder, more straight-ahead and solid rockers ‘Something Was Me’ and ‘Down Love’ I can’t help but think that, with better attention to the running order and a tiny bit more selectiveness on the tunes, 14 Songs would’ve gone from being bloody good to great in no time. It’s got a real band dynamic that’s often missing on singer-songwriter albums, a relaxed vibe and finds just the right balance between the two-sides of Westerberg’s writing, wrapping up his romanticism, wry lyrics and self-depreciating humour in a very strong collection of songs.

It wasn’t to be, though. Much like his former band, the album generated some strong reviews but failed to catch on commercially. By the time he released his solo record, the bands who he had influenced and shared listing with on the Singles soundtrack were getting the attention. From here there would be two more major-label albums before he’d ditch working with producers and go the home-recording route where he’d go on to pen some of his best work, even if not so many heard it (see 2008’s 49:00, if you can) before, following the 2012-15 Replacements reunion,  forming The I Don’t Cares with Juliana Hatfield. Their album, Wild Stab, is well worth a listen, too and I’ll finish off with a tune from it…. “Dreams I had before are now too bored to even show up.”

 

*If we’re talking best movie soundtracks (which I probably will one day) then this one will be way up the top of the list.

**It’s a lot of fun but I’m now about to hit the Top Five (which means I’ve already cleared fifteen) and could do with cleansing my aural palate a bit.

***We’ve all done it. I even had ‘Mixed Emotions’ played at my wedding so I could make use of the wooden dance floor this way.

****Is this really the first time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes here? Given how near-perfect those first three albums were I’m very surprised…

Blog Tour: Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson

fullsizerenderThe calm, secluded Icelandic town of Siglufjörður is even more quiet than usual; the sudden illness and death of a visitor means the town is in quarantine.

For Ari Thór this is not necessarily a bad thing – he and Tómas are now the lone members of the police force, splitting shifts between them. But he’s not keeping idle. A local man, Heddin, asks him to look into a decades-old mystery: in 1955 two young couples moved to the isolated and otherwise uninhabited Hedinsfjörður. Their attempts to forge a new life come to disturbing end when one of the women dies after consuming poison, help too far away to reach her in time. The case was never solved and suicide considered the accepted explanation. Heddin, the son of one of the couples and born in Hedinsfjörður himself, has been given an old photograph that may prove something more sinister occurred in that desolate fjord – for, holding the infant Heddin in his arms, an unknown man smiles back at the camera.

Who is the man in the photo? Does he have anything to do with the death of Heddin’s aunt? What really happened out on that bleak fjord? Unable to leave town, Ari is assisted in his investigations by Ísrún, a news reporter (introduced in Black Out) who’s chasing a case of her own.

Isrun’s case is a far more complex and  multi-faceted one that brings together a child abduction, murder and political ambition that is at times genuinely chilling and nerve-wracking. The hurried, freedom of her movement in Reykjavík further emphasising the cooped-up restraint of Siglufjörður as both she and Ari Thór discover just how far the actions of the past can reach into the present.

The splitting of action in Rupture allows Ragnar Jónasson to really flex his skills as a writer; equally strong in both establishing a slow burning mystery in Siglufjörður and a gripping, fast-paced thriller of a story in Reykjavík, each complex and packed with enough intrigue and revelation to ensure the pages of Rupture are turned with speed.

With many a well known series character there’s not much of an unknown quality about them. Their history and character traits are pretty quickly established and it’s seeing how these known elements handle changing situations that make for so many of their books. Everyone knows, for example, how a Jack Reacher type will respond in a given situation or whether a Harry Hole type will pick up a drink or not. What makes the Dark Iceland series so bloody addictive is that this isn’t the case with Ari Thór; glimpses and insights into his past and character are revealed with each book (the violent jealousy in Black Out or the truth of his parents hinted at in Night Blind) but the whole remains hidden so as to make the character of its lead as much a mystery as the crimes themselves and keep the reader coming back to the police station in Siglufjörður.

Rupture is a fantastic book, another brilliant instalment in the Dark Iceland series which is itself a vital addition to both the thriller genre and any discerning bookshelf. I cannot recommend this enough.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and do check out the previous stops (I seem to have the honour of closing it) on the Rupture blog tour.

rupture-blog-tour

Least to Most; Bruce – The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

“This boardwalk life for me is through
You know you ought to quit this scene too…”

thewildtheinnocentWhat a difference six months can make. After his début failed to propel him to the dizzying heights hoped for by his signing as a ‘new Dylan’, Bruce Springsteen entered 914 Studios in New York to record his second album. This time, though, things would be a little different. For one, Bruce wanted more control of the sound and production. For another, and perhaps prompting the former, Springsteen was fired up about playing with his embryonic E Street Band and had reignited his passion for a big, full-band sound that was absent from Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.

Everything on here is aiming for epic – the sound, the instrumentation and even the characters. Before he started singing about the less fanciful Marys, Wendys and Joes his New York and New Jersey characters were more colourful than a ‘gang meeting’ on Hill Street Blues. On The Wild, The Innocent… there’s Power Thirteen and his girl Little Angel, Sandy, Kitty, Big Pretty,  Catlong, Missy Bimbo, the Flying Zambinis, Margarita, Sampson, Tiny Tim, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, Billy, Diamond Jackie, Little Dynamite and Little Gun, Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, Sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billy all amidst a maelstrom of boy prophets, Latin lovers and hard girls on Easy Street. Not to mention a certain girl called Rosie. All within just seven songs.

And what songs they are. Here Bruce ditched the rhyming dictionary and attempts to sing a novel at speed in every verse, embraced the opportunity offered by the band and delivered a set of songs with more ambition in terms of lyrics and scope than you’d have guessed possible of him just six months earlier. While personally I’ve never been hugely fond of the opening cut (it’s down to that phunk keyboard line dancing all over it like some platform-shoed drunk disco elephant) there’s no denying its quality. Other than that, every other song here gets a five star rating from me.

With its wistful tale of Madame Marie, ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’  alone shows the strides Springsteen took as a songwriter between albums and the benefits of road-testing songs before getting into the studio. It’s easy to see why Federici asked to play this showcase on his last performance with the band and this most romantic of Bruce’s songs remains a live highlight decades later.

‘Kitty’s Back’ is a monster of a tune, clocking in at over seven minutes and showcasing Springsteen’s guitar chops (again absent through Greetings..) and proving what a wild, R&B/Soul/Jazz/Rock powerhouse outfit his band was. I’ve heard criticism that ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ takes itself too seriously but to that I say “arseholes”. It’s a cracking, fun little tune and contains a great lyric: “the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”. It’s odd but I think that Springsteen’s lyrics often get overlooked as some of the real nuggets like this one are often missed when reflecting on the overall story of the song. At just 23 Bruce was already coming up with some great lines.

Listening back through these albums has meant I’ve been discovering little gems that I’d almost forgotten and that’s certainly true of ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’. It also means my young son has been getting introduced to these and along with calls for this one (the “Elephant Song” based on Gary Tallent’s tuba blasts) he’s surely one of precious-few three year old’s calling out for “Rosie!”

Ah yes, ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’. There’s no getting away from just how fucking good this song is. Described by Bruce as an early ‘Born To Run’ but with more humour, this is a real indicator as to where Springsteen’s sound was going. Just listen to the mix of sax and guitar around the 5:10 mark, you half expect “the highway’s jammed…” to come barrelling in. In this instance, it goes back to the party instead. Rolling Stone have described this song as “a raucous celebration of desire.” It is a big, beautiful and triumphant song and easily one of Springsteen’s best and does remain the album’s biggest sign post as to what’s to come both in terms of it’s “it’s time to bust out of here” and it’s sound, made especially arresting by it’s sequencing.

The prototype of Bruce’s ‘busting outta here’ song sits between his two most unabashed and wonderful epics; ‘Incident on 57th Street‘ and ‘New York City Serenade’. ‘Incident on 57th Street’ is a massive song in terms of Bruce’s song-writing. It’s like listening to the sound of all the pieces aligning properly as Bruce steps aside and delivers one of his finest – and earliest – songs sung from an observational point that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

Why I mention sequencing, though, is that the sound of the final, gentle tickle of piano notes is quickly blasted away by the sheer force and power of ‘Rosie’, making the juxtaposition between the two styles all the more evident.

And then there’s ‘New York City Serenade’. You know there’s a few, a small few songs that I’ll listen to where the opening bar is so immediately ‘right’, so ‘spot on’ and tuned to me that it affects me to the core. It’s like an instant high. ‘New York City Serenade’ is one of those. That hammer of the piano strings, the cascade of notes that follows. Sometimes you’ll hear an intro that’s perfect and you’ll think ‘ok, how’s this gonna get marred?’ because not everything that follows can be as good. With ‘New York City Serenade’ everything works beautifully, the arrangement is so perfectly put together that every element just flows into the next in a way that makes it seem like effortless poetry. There’s not a single bum not or misstep in the entire song. Bruce Springsteen was 23 when he wrote and arranged ‘New York City Serenade.’ When I was 23 I though it was a good idea to call a band ‘Wookie Cushion’*. I’ve played this song to people who thought they knew what to expect from a Springsteen song and they’ve always had to question whether it was really “that Born in the USA guy”.

One of my all-time favourite songs.

img_1456 What this also means is that Side B of this album might just be the finest 25 minutes of music put to vinyl.

Easily Springsteen at his most expansive, poetic and romantic, The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is a beautiful embrace of and gentle kiss goodbye to his boardwalk life as he takes his characters and breaks them out of their surroundings in pursuit of a new dream.

Oddly, though, his record label didn’t agree that the album was up to scratch. When Springsteen handed it in, the allies he’d had at Columbia were no longer in place. Instead of receiving the great feedback he’d hoped for, Bruce was instead told that the players were sub par and it was suggested that he re-cut the majority of it with professional studio musicians. Of course, this wasn’t an option. Unfortunately, sticking to his guns meant that Columbia buried the album. No release fanfare, no promotion, little distribution. Bruce would play shows in towns where they had no idea the album had even been released.

Thankfully, though, Bruce still had what it takes to cut it live and lay down a killer show. This lead to two things. The first was catching the eye of Jon Landau and the infamous  “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” review that would lead to the pair’s friendship and Landau becoming Springsteen’s manager.  Secondly, Springsteen took to taking aim at his record company during his on-stage patter. One particularly embittered voicing of his frustration happened at a college where the son of the label’s boss happened, unknown to Bruce, to be in attendance. Legend has it he called his father, explained just how much of an amazing act Springsteen was and what was being said and the head of the label soon sat down with his charge and said words along the lines of “what can we do to get this working?”

With Landau and his record label supporting him, it would be time to shed the mythic tales and follow The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle with a last chance power drive…

Highlights: ALL OF IT

 

*You’d sit on it and it would go “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgh!”

Least to Most; Bruce – Magic

“I tried to combine personal and political, so you can read into the songs either way. You can read the record as a comment on what’s been going on, or you can read it just as relationship songs.”

bruce_springsteen_-_magicIn December 2016 Bruce sat down with Brendan O’Brien at his home, handed him a book of lyrics and then played the tunes on his guitar, offering the producer the pick of the litter. The two then decamped to Atlanta again and with a core band of Springsteen, Weinberg, Bittan and Tallent, laid the basic tracks for the album. Other band members were called in to lay down their parts as needed and sessions were complete within two months. Another example of the pair’s more precise recording practice, it meant that without the opportunity to spend protracted amounts of time exploring alternative avenues and ideas, all effort and concentration focused on the one group of songs and bringing them to perfection. Shorn of the fiddles of Seeger Sessions and the acoustic dirge of Devils and Dust, the resulting Magic is the high benchmark of Springsteen’s second chapter and bursts with a fire and passion that sets a lot of his work in the shade.

I’ll be clear – as if it wasn’t already – I fucking love this album. The songs here are harder and sharper than on The Rising, the E Street Band – during its late peak – is playing tighter than a duck’s arse and the result is a joy to behold. The sound is ridiculously lush and there’s more revealed with every listen; the mandolin on ‘Magic’, Federici’s organ on ‘Livin’ In The Future’, the moody atmospherics of ‘Devil’s Arcade’ but I’m jumping ahead….

It starts with guitars. A thousand guitars and pounding drums, as ‘Radio Nowhere‘ leads an impassioned, energetic blast of all the E Street’s finest qualities and Bruce growling out his call to arms “Is there anybody alive out there?” against a thumping beat and euphoric blast from Clarence Clemons’ sax. Magic is Bruce and the E Street tuned in and meaning business as they bore through a new Springsteen classic and straight into ‘You’ll Be Coming Down’ which sounds like a blast of Bruce’s sound from earlier decades:

Indeed, Bruce spoke of how for this album he tried to get back to his earlier, romantic sounds last heard on Born To Run and there’s a wealth of nostalgia in the sound*.

“There’s some classic Sixties pop forms. California-rock influences –Pet Sounds and a lot of Byrds. I wanted to take the productions that create the perfect pop universes and then subvert them with the lyrics – fill them with the hollowness and the fear, the uneasiness of these very uneasy times.”

Take ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ – which, apparently, Bruce had little interest in but O’Brien pushed for its inclusion – as an example of this; the doubling up of Bruce’s voice for the first time in goodness knows how long against a gorgeous backdrop (and a great rhythm guitar part) . Or the horns of ‘Livin In The Future’ that blast like a Freeze-out on a certain avenue. Or the out-and-out joy of ‘I’ll Work For Your Love‘.

But even here, the fire lurks beneath the surface. Bruce is angry and the pain and disbelief are shot through every song no matter how much he may have tried to allow the songs to be taken without them. There’s the groundskeeper who “opened the gates and let the wild dogs run” in ‘Livin..’ or  how the “city of peace has crumbled, our book of faith’s been tossed” in ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’, there’s no getting around it and it makes for some of his finest and most pointed lyrics in a long time. Certainly the best of Bruce V.2

I’ve mentioned before that  ‘Gypsy Biker’ shares a lot of ground with ‘Shut Out The Light’. The earlier track was one of Springsteen’s Vietnam tunes, ‘Gypsy Biker’ is one of a more modern war – Johnny gets to pull out his Ford and polish up the chrome in the former, the biker in the latter is coming home in a coffin; “Sister Mary sits with your colors”. It’s one of his best.

I remember at the time of release, Magic was referred to as being about “love in the time of Bush” **. There’s no direct references here, no mention of specific wars or Bush (though it may well be his “boot heels clickin’ like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round” on ‘Livin In The Future’) but he doesn’t need to.  The threat he felt in 2006 is there throughout.  Perhaps its most telling on the beautiful title track. Quiet, gentle guitar and chamberlin undercut with strings and Van Zandt’s mandolin make for a soothing, hypnotic stroll or dance as Springsteen lists ‘magic’ tricks but then it’s there in the last verse:

“Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s comin’ up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.”

If there was any doubt left about this album’s thrust it’s obliterated by what comes next. ‘Last To Die‘ takes it’s lyrics from John Kerry’s testimony on Vietnam (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”) and straps it to a howling, fierce track.

The album’s closing track*** ‘Devil’s Arcade’ is a dark bruiser of a tune that’s perhaps the most literal on it. A lover’s recall of portentous earlier memories and passion before her love enlists and winds up being wounded “the cool desert morning, then nothin’ to save, just metal and plastic where your body caved” and in a hospital while she waits for his touch –  Weinberg hammers home the rhythmic thump against the repeated “The beat of your heart, the beat of your heart”.

Again; it’s one of the finest things Springsteen has written and this album is chock-full of them. It’s strange to listen to this album again (though it’s rarely out of rotation) now as we find ourselves staring down even darker corridors than GW had lead the world. Then, as now, this album’s warmth and spirit remain a lighthouse; there is love, there is light and it needn’t be the monsters that call the tune, we have the choice.

Highlights: ‘Radio Nowhere’, ‘Livin In The Future’, ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’, ‘Gypsy Biker’, ‘Magic’, ‘Last To Die’, ‘Devil’s Arcade’.

*Something which would lead to a burst of writing just as the Magic sessions wound down and form the basis of Working On A Dream.

**Not the working title of a late-night Gabriel García Márquez adaptation.

***Officially. Following the death of Springsteen’s long-time assistant Terry Magovern, ‘Terry’s Song’ was added.