Well, it happened. I thought it wasn’t going to, certainly not so soon after his ‘Vegas residency’ period but I woke this morning to the news that Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars will drop in June.
Given that I was reading the news while dropping the kids off at the pool* it meant I’d pre-ordered before I stood up.
Recorded predominantly at his home studio in New Jersey, this – the first album of new material in five years (seven if you don’t count those heated up left overs of High Hopes), Western Stars, to cite Springsteen’s website: takes his music to a new place, drawing inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”
Cover art (the first not to feature Bruce’s mug on it since The Ghost of Tom Joad) and track listing have dropped and the first ‘single’ has also been released (not that these things really exist anymore, do they?) too:
It’s a return to story-telling Bruce
Album themes encompass a “sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope”
No Tom Morello
It’s been a long time coming – this could go either way: Human Touch was laboured but rushed-releases could use better quality control
The song title ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ seems promising on its own to me
“Sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements”
No E Street Band
So… Am I excited? Fuck yeah, I’ve just finished another Bruce series that’s reminded me that there’s always a reason to tune in, even if there are warning signs production-wise.
*curious to see if that reference is known across the various blog-oceans
What started off as a two-part look at my favourite Springsteen’s lyrics grew into an easy three-parter as every time I worked on the list it grew when I remembered another lyric. I could have stretched this to four but this Springsteen Series is already long and it’s time to wrap it up. I reckon I’ve still got at least a couple of these BIG BRUCE BLOGS in the works though, so let’s move forward and get into the final part of this one, complete with playlist.
“Well I swear if I could spare the spit, I’d lay one on your shiny chrome, and send you on your way back home”
When Bruce started expanding his lyrical framework beyond his immediate locales, his social and political consciousness began growing too. In place of songs about Jersey boardwalks and fortune tellers came lyrics about real people and their struggles in failing economies where ‘lately there ain’t been much work’. ‘Seeds’ is one of these early tunes to plow this awareness into his songwriting. Oft-overlooked as it never made it to a studio album (it joins the list of those culled form Born In The USA*) and was only officially released on Live 1975-85 it would feature in Springsteen’s sets for a reason – it was a mainstay during the Reagan years and it would slip back into Springsteen’s set lists in 2009, when America’s economy started to circle the u-bend.
You can feel the anger in this one, another story of how betting everything on following the American dream (chasing the oil boom just after it went bust) fucked someone over, scathing lyrics set against a thumping E Street rhythm and heavy chords.
Human Touch, Better Days & Living Proof
“You can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”
“But it’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin, and can’t stand the company”
“Life is just a house of cards, as fragile as each and every breath as this boy sleepin’ in our bed”
It’s not cheating – to me these are both three great individual songs but their lyrics and arc belong in the same write-up.
They complete a story arc that’s clearly autobiographical and highlight one of those elements that – even when a large part of the album’s they’re on are tosh – makes Springsteen a great writer is that he’s able to take that look into himself, and what’s in all of us, and carve it into something that you actually want to listen to.
At the end of the 80’s Springsteen’s first marriage was over and he’d already been fighting depression. The arc represented by these songs shows characters who – in ‘Human Touch’ – have been bruised by former experiences (‘so you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt, show me somebody who aint’) but are still willing to lay it on the line for a second chance – but , as Springsteen put it: “to receive what love delivers, they have to surrender themselves to each other and accept fate.”
In Better Days those “characters return from broken love affairs and self-doubt and find the tempered optimism to take another shot,” – Bruce pointed out in ‘Songs’ – having “taken a piss, at fortune’s sweet kiss”, realised what passes by while you sit “listening to the hours and minutes tickin’ away” and find the redemption that’s out there.
There’s an undeniable sense of promise and positivity to the song and it doesn’t hurt that the lyrics are strapped to one of the better tunes in terms of production on the two albums.
Despite being the song that kicked off writing for Lucky Town, ‘Living Proof’ serves as the final chapter in a way as Bruce reflects on fatherhood and the joy and sense of completion that delivers – children being the living proof that “love is real. They are faith and hope transformed into flesh and blood.”
The song has meant more to me withe each passing year since my own son arrived “like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make” and will remain a lyrical favourite for just that reason. Springsteen obviously felt pretty similarly about it as it’s the sole song from Human Touch and Lucky Town to have been selected for the ‘autobiographical’ collection Chapter and Verse.
I think any of us that have every fought that black dog can recognise and appreciate Springsteen’s lyrics across these three tunes – that there is a light there if you’re willing to give it a shot but you gotta be willing to the chance – nor deny his right to apply this more personal light to his lyrics (even if the overall albums and production fall flat).
Last to Die
“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake, whose blood will spill, whose heart will break”
Magic is one of Springsteen’s finest collections of songs and easily the strongest of his post-reunion albums. It’s certainly his angriest, with Springsteen’s rage against Bush and the cost of war on people – I think it was Bono who said that all of America is Springsteen’s hometown now – burning beneath the surface of so many of it’s tunes. ‘Gypsy Biker’ updates his ‘Nam song ‘Shut Out The Light’ with harsher consequence and ‘Last to Die’ takes takes it’s lyrics directly 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?”
It’s packed with scathing, bitingly angry lines like ‘We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door’ and ‘The wise men were all fools’ and strapped to the blazing sound of the E Street Band in its final peak.
“We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for”
A stand-out story on an album resplendent with story songs and precise lyrics. ‘Youngstown’ tells the story of that Ohio town from the discovery of the ore that was “linin’ Yellow Creek” in 1803, through wars Civil, First, Second, Vietnam and Korean to the city’s decline as the arse fell out of the steel industry – “the yard’s just scrap and rubble .” The ‘Jenny’ in the chorus is also the nickname for the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company’s Jeanette Blast Furnace – which shut down in ’77 (ta, Wikipedia).
There’s a real poetry to Springsteen’s telling of this potted history and the lyrics work both against the minimal backdrop of The Ghost of Tom Joad and when set alight by Nils Lofgren live:
Hey Blue Eyes
“In this house there’s just the dust of bones, the basement’s filled with liars
In this house our sons and daughters are spilled like wine.”
Technically the last ‘new’ Springsteen tune released and testament to the fact that he can still punch above the pack with this lyrics even when not amazing with anything musically, ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ is taken from the American Beauty EP that was released in 2014.
Springsteen has described the track and its allegorical lyrics as “one of my darkest political songs. Written during the Bush years, it’s a metaphor for the house of horrors our government’s actions created in the years following the invasion of Iraq. At its center is the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison. I feel this is a shadow we as a country have yet to emerge from.”
The Last Carnival
“Moon rise, moon rise, the light that was in your eyes is gone away.
Daybreak, daybreak, the thing in you that made me ache has gone to stay ”
Danny ‘The Phantom’ Federici, founding member of the E Street Band, died April 17, 2008 after a three year fight with melanoma. Working On A Dream, Springsteen’s 2009 album, is dedicated to Federici and ‘The Last Carnival’ is both a reference to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ and a touching tribute to the first of the E-Street Band to slip this mortal coil.
“It started out as a way of making sense of his passing. He was a part of that sound of the boardwalk the band grew up with and that’s something that’s going to be missing now.”
Brothers Under The Bridge
“One minute you’re right there, and something slips”
A tune cut around The Ghost of Tom Joad though left off and included on Tracks – ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living beneath a bridge, with other homeless veterans, “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.” At a time when Springsteen was like a factory churning out great short-story like songs against hushed backgrounds that wouldn’t hide bad lyrics, this is a stand out and one that sits with his finest ‘Nam songs – with lines like ‘You were just a beautiful light, in your mama’s dark eyes of blue’ and that final line ‘something slips’.
“Beneath the city two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender”
Of-fucking-course it was gonna be on here. How can Springsteen’s most epic and well-loved ‘story’ song not be? I’ve been using its lyrics for the blog titles after all. There’s nothing that can be said about this one that hasn’t been said by better critics than I – all I’ll say is that you can pick any lyric on here and it’ll not only be gold but will be sung along to passionately by the entire crowed at any given Springsteen show it’s played at.
Well: this year will feature my last birthday with a 3 at the start. So, I figured that, given my average posting frequency and to allow a post every week or so, I’d pick an album from each of the years I’ve been on this ride in the theory that this would leave me enough time to complete a 40 post series just as I hit 40.
I’ll be picking one album from each year that’s either a favourite, one that means something to me and has not been covered in these ‘pages’ thus far.
Sound alright? I am, of course, always happy to get feedback or recommendations for anything that I may have missed along the way – especially in those years when I hadn’t yet mastered walking.
So, let’s start from the top…
1980 saw a fair bit going on in the music world:
Paul McCartney kicked off his 1980 in jail in Japan when he was caught with some marijuana on him – they’d kick him out of the country two weeks later.
Don Henley also got in a bit of bother with the rozzers and drugs, albeit some harder substances when police hit the motherload in his house after a naked 16-year-old prostitute(!) had drug-related seizures and they found another 15-year-old girl(!!) tripping balls. He ended up with all kinds of charges which, oddly enough, didn’t end up as lyrical fodder for ‘Boys of Summer’…. ‘you got ya hair combed back and those quaaludes are kickin in, baby.’
Led Zepplin’s powerhouse drummer John Bonham’s wholehearted embrace of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of excess reached its inevitable conclusion and he was found dead by bandmate John Paul Jones – the drummer having choked on his own vomit after downing several pubs worth of vodka. The band would disband a month or two later.
Back to Fab – John Lennon and Yoko Ono got busy recording Double Fantasy which dropped in November. But, just one month later, Lennon was entering the Dakota building when he noticed Mark Chapman standing nearby and nodded at him – presumably recognising him after Chapman had requested Lennon’s autograph earlier in the day. Moments later Chapman fired five shots at John Lennon’s back, from about ten feet away and 1980 drew to a close with 100,000 mourners holding a public vigil in Central Park for the murdered John Lennon.
Bit of an odd one to be born into, really. In terms of album’s released in 1980, it’s slim pickings from my wheelhouse.
Split Enz released the phenomenal True Colours (home to ‘I Got You’ and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ and a buttload of other crackers)…. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta dropped in October and it, too, is stuffed with corkers.
The Joe Perry Project released their first album Let the Music Do the Talking which included the stonking title track and a good dose of riff-heavy tunes and some fella from New Jersey released an ep called The River... and a group of young lads from Ireland dropped their debut Boy and promptly vanished into obscurity.
BUT: I can’t choose The River as the ‘1980’ album. As much as it’s my favourite release of the year I’ve already talked about it at length and I don’t want to repeat myself. So.. what does that leave? Scary Monsters? Meh. Sandinista! ? Nah… though ‘Police On My Back’ is a fucking belter!
Dire Straits –Making Movies
Knopfler and co’s third album, Making Movies dropped on October 17th 1980. The same day as Bruce Springsteen’s The River and just 11 days before I did.
Dire Straits actually ‘borrowed’ both Roy Bittan and Jimmy Iovine from Springsteen for Making Movies. Knoplfer had wanted Iovine as producer after hearing Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ and Iovine helped get The Professor involved. Probably helped that they were pretty much next door – Making Movies was recorded at New York’s The Power Station at the same time as work on The River was wrapping up. – I’ve pondered before if the seeds for, or at least the title of, the Boss’ Tunnel of Love song were planted here, there’s no way he’d not listen to what his producer and piano player had been moonlighting on.. or even listened through the wall with a wine glass?
That oft-maligned trade rag Rolling Stone has this to say of Making Movies:
“Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”
To say I grew up with Dire Straits and Making Movies on in the background would be an understatement. Their love of the band was something that bonded my father and his best friend (my ‘Dutch uncle’) and it was continually played to the point that now, thirty some years later I still know every word on the majority of this album and still enjoy spinning it.
It’s the album that helped the band break out to a wider audience with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ did the business on radio. On yet another Springsteen connection (I know, I know) that beautiful guitar arpeggio? Go listen then go listen to ‘Jungleland‘ and the piano in the first verse. It wasn’t deliberate, Knopfler hit on it by pure chance while trying out a tuning with his National:
There’s nothing wrong with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but my personal favourite is still the first tune on the album, the Tunnel of Love / Carousel Waltz combo. When you combine it with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Skateaway’ I think you’ve got a pretty damn fine Side A there.
Side B isn’t too shabby. Granted ‘Les Boys’ wouldn’t be released today with it’s “Les Boys do cabaret, Les Boys are glad to be gay” lyrics but Knopfler’s guitar work is on form throughout, as with the tres-80s titled ‘Expresso Love’ and the charming ‘Hand in Hand’ which, for my money, points at sounds that would surface more on their next album Love Over Gold:
Still, what saves the album isn’t just what’s on it but what isn’t: ‘Twisting by the Pool’ was recorded during these sessions but was, thankfully, left off.