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.

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.

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.

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.

Least to Most: Bruce – Tracks

“The alternate route to some of the destinations I travelled to on my records.” Bruce Springsteen

“Every song on Tracks is a lost argument”. Steven Van Zandt.

Strap in, this one is a long one…

bruce_springsteen_tracksIn 1998, with eleven studio albums to his name, close to 75% of Springsteen’s work remained in the vaults. His mammoth studio and recording sessions from Darkness on the Edge of Town onward meant that he’d essentially written four albums worth of material for every one that was released. His production and arranging partner for much of this time, Steven Van Zandt, would get frustrated by this practice – especially when he had to work so hard for his own songs – as many of his favourite tracks would end up shelved despite being the sort of thing other acts could make a career from but has referred to this period as Bruce’s “hundred song phase”. Not many artists are capable of such sustained writing periods, let alone when the material was so solidly strong.

When Tracks was released in 1998 it had already been whittled down from six discs of material to four and the 66 tracks ran from Springsteen’s 1972 audition tapes for Columbia through roughly chronological order to the late 90’s, divided up (as illustrated by the covers given to each of those discs inside the box) into what Bruce saw as the sections of his song-writing arc. Given that it came at the end of an otherwise sparse decade for Bruce fans, it was embarrassment of riches; of the songs included a handful had been released as B-Sides, some had leaked out on bootlegs and some had been heard live but never released. Plenty of them though had never even been heard of.

Those audition tapes kick proceedings off but, given the bare-bones approach to their released versions, don’t offer anything other than a passing interest and ‘Bishop Danced’ isn’t all that good if I’m honest. The first disc is made up of out-takes that, for the most part, it’s clear to see why; the songs are good ideas but don’t really make for strong contenders. I couldn’t imagine much debate went into ‘Zero & Blind Terry’ vs ‘Incident on 57th Street’ but the songs are good examples of Bruce working out ideas in the studio, with many a part stripped from one and dropped into another – albeit a couple of decades later with ‘Seaside Bar Song’s “the highway is alive tonight” lyric. But that’s because, up to, and including, the Born To Run sessions, Bruce’s writing hadn’t hit its stride (in terms of prolificacy not quality) and I imagine the constraints put upon him by the record label meant the time to do so wasn’t afforded to him in the way the Appel lawsuit would force it. For once the first disc reaches ‘Rendevous’ and the sublime ‘Iceman‘  we’re jumping into songs from Bruce’s most fertile period and the quality kicks up into a different gear. The leap is noticeable between ‘Linda Let Me Be The One’ and ‘Don’t Look Back’.

Now, in the same way the The Promise represents a lost album, the second and third discs of Tracks are nigh on faultless and could easily make up three classic albums from tracks completely omitted from The River and Born In The USA. Just take the breathless joy of Disc 2 opener ‘Restless Nights’ as Danny Federici whips up a dervish on his keys before Bruce’s guitar rips into it a minute and a half in:

Tracks like ‘Roulette‘, ‘Dolls House’, ‘Where The Bands Are’, ‘Loose Ends‘, ‘Living on the Edge of the World’ are pure, perfect three/four minute pop songs. Van Zandt was aghast that these were shelved – believing an album of these, plus ‘The River’ would be been a great thing. He’s not wrong. ‘Living on the Edge of the World‘ perhaps sounds strange but that’s because Bruce would take a few of it’s lines and strap them to altogether different beats for Nebraska‘s ‘Open All Night’ and ‘State Trooper’. Oh and there’s the absolute classic ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’ which just bounds along on a stellar beat that surpasses many a released song.

Slipped just before ‘Take ‘Em..’ is a Born In The USA out-take whose existence was previously unknown;

‘Wages of Sin’, another Bruce classic, is the first hint of what’s to come on Disc 3; a wealth of tunes that were recorded between 1982 and 1984 in that protracted recording period that lead to Bruce’s biggest-selling album. As big as that album was, the tracks that didn’t make the cut could easily be put together into an alternative album that would’ve been as good if not better. Just picking a handful of those tracks, say: ‘Wages of Sin, ‘Rockaway the Days‘, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)‘, ‘Lion’s Den’ will give you a strong album, if you were to add ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down‘, which breezes and rocks past plenty like on Born In The USA then you’ve got a classic and that’s without even mentioning another previously unheard of song – ‘Brothers Under The Bridges ’83’:

More than an ‘alternate route’ there’s alternate albums here. Oddly enough, Bruce even toyed with yet another album approach between Nebraska and …USA. Buoyed by the positive reception Nebraska‘s stripped-down sound received he headed back and laid down a few more tracks in a similar bare-bones, minimal approach before abandoning and heading back into the studio with the full band. Of those recorded during those sessions the soft tribute to Elvis, ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ would end up released as b-sides for ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ before their inclusion on Tracks.

It’s not only ..USA that could’ve taken a different theme – just take a look at the difference in themes on those songs recorded during the Tunnel of Love sessions. ‘The Wish‘ is perhaps most known of these- a song Bruce wrote for his mother but felt unable to release officially given its sentimentality – while ‘The Honeymooners’ (a home-recording with the sound of dog barking captured in the background), ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘When You Need Me’ give a different insight to the men & women relationships that album tended to lean toward. Hell, ‘When You Need Me‘, similar in its uncomplicated sentiment as ‘Two For The Road’ is as content as Bruce would get this side of Lucky Town: “When you need me call my name, ’cause without you my life just wouldn’t be the same”.

The final disc loses the momentum a little with a lot of bass-heavy songs cut during the Human Touch sessions weighing it down. “I wrote about half a record on the bass, where you had a note and you had your idea. The only one that made it to release was ‘57 Channels,’”… indeed, and on Disc 4 there’s the remainder of those cuts – all exploring similar themes (internal dialogues working out psychological or relationships as Bruce himself was at the time) but none that really stand out as worthy of going further. That being said I’d rather something like ‘Gave It  A Name‘ or ‘When The Lights Go Out’ had seen release over the aforementioned Human Touch cut itself.

There’s still plenty to enjoy, though. In ‘Songs’ he explains that to shake off his writer’s block, Bruce started sessions for Human Touch by experimenting with different styles he “had always liked: soul, rock, pop, R&B”.  If you ask me, removed from much of the heavy-handed production that spoilt that album, they shine brighter here. One such song ‘Sad Eyes‘ is a cutting tune that’s better than most released on that album (and features David Sancious who also plays on ‘Part Man, Park Monkey’), ‘Seven Angels’ is back to the rock but undercut with more humour and looseness than anything that made the cut and ‘Gave It A Name’ – the master take couldn’t be found so Bruce and Roy Bittan recut the track in ’98 – is masterful in it’s minimalism. Oh, and there’s also ‘Happy’ the sole out-take from Lucky Town omitted only, I guess, because it shared the “gold and diamond rings…drug to ease the pain that living brings” line with the superior ‘My Beautiful Reward’.

The box is rounded out by the then-latest omissions. ‘Back In Your Arms‘ features the E Street Band and was recorded during the Greatest Hits sessions – like ‘Secret Garden’ it was originally one intended for Bruce’s shelved ‘Philadelphia’-style album – while ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a beautiful out-take that was, exasperatingly when you considered what it could’ve replaced, omitted from The Ghost of Tom Joad and brings the set up to what was then Bruce’s most recent studio sessions. A story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living “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.” It would be performed live after ‘Born in the USA’ or ‘Shut Out The Light’ to place it within Bruce’s Vietnam arc and its one of those songs (like ‘The Promise’) whose live rendering meant fans were puzzled by its omission from the record.

Not everything on Tracks is brilliant but a lot of it is, much of it is very strong and some of the songs are absolute Bruce classics that stand above many in his catalogue. That’s why it’s on this list and why it’s on this list in this place; if I were talking to a Bruce newbie I’d recommend many of the songs on here well before a lot in his catalogue.

While many box-sets merely curate already-released material with a smattering of live cuts or offer up b-sides that are clearly inferior to their As, Tracks represents a much deeper fleshing out of the Springsteen narrative and emphasises just how strong a songwriter he is; even those tracks omitted from his albums piss all over many artist’s hits. Four discs and 66 songs is a lot to get through but it’s worth it. If you’re pressed for time then Discs 2 and 3 contain enough gold to make sure the box is worth of inclusion as an essential addition to a Springsteen collection / discussion.

Highlights: ‘Iceman’, ‘Don’t Look Back,’ ‘Restless Nights’, ‘Roulette’, ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Rockaway the Days’, ‘Brothers Under the Bridges ’83’, ‘Seven Angels’, ‘Gave It A Name,’ ‘Happy’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’

Not-so-highlights: The omission of ‘The Promise’. This actually lead to many a complaint from fans. A new recording of it would be slapped on the single-disc-sampler/cash-in 18 Tracks along with another couple of ‘new old’ tracks – ‘The Fever’ and ‘Trouble River’. 18 Tracks, intended for fans who didn’t fancy the full box, actually fared worse than Tracks in terms of sales and charting; Tracks was something of a hit for Bruce, hitting the Top 30 and shifting plenty of units, defying expectations for a Box Set in much the same way as Live: 1975-85 had a decade earlier.