I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.

Hello Sunshine

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:

Good things:

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”
David Sancious
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”

 

Bad things:

Ron Aniello
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

Bruce Springsteen – LA Sports Arena, California 1988

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in!

How? Well with a facebook post announcing that as it’s Mother’s Day in the US, Springsteen’s live archive series was available for half price – I’m still not sure I see the connection with the two but what the hell, I’d toyed with the idea of downloading one for a while and while the £ to $ ratio is a bit up and down depending on Maggie May or Putin’s Cock Holder, it still meant the idea of downloading a full concert for less than £4 was too good an opportunity to miss.

Which means that after something of a Bruce diet I found myself scrolling through the available shows and settling upon one from 1988 – from the Los Angeles Sports Arena, April 23rd to be precise. A 31 song setlist for less for around 10p a song.

Why this one, and not – say – the earlier peak-period concerts from, say ’75 or ’78? I reckon Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 and the live concerts captured on The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, not to mention Live/1975–85 do a pretty good job of covering that era while anything post re-union I fancy hearing is also well documented with the Live In New York City and Hyde Park releases. The thing about all of those post-Tunnel Of Love releases, though, is that not a single tune from that album is represented. Given that I believe these represent some of his best, most insightful songs of his career, getting a high-quality concert from that era seemed like a no-brainer for me.

So.. with that in mind; is it any good? First thing – the sound quality is spot on and I only plumped up for the basic MP3s. And, having spent a couple of days with it now I can tell you that yes, it bloody well is good. I wouldn’t call it an essential live album but it’s a fascinating and at times brilliant concert and I would call it essential listening for a Bruce fan.

I say fascinating because the Tunnel of Love Express Tour found Bruce in a transitional phase. He was seemingly tired of the E Street and Bruuuuuce of old and was trying – perhaps in an interest to keep himself interested as much as give the audience something different – to mix things up. The venues were smaller than the megadomes of Bossmania and songs that had been setlist staples were culled in place of obscure b-sides (opener ‘Tunnel of Love’ was followed not by a crowd-shaker like ‘Badlands’ but by the weaker* ‘Be True’) and covers, band members were shuffled into different places – Max Weinberg was moved from centre to the side and Patti Scialfa was bought to a more prominent position, becoming more of a foil than Clarence Clemons. The positioning and role of Patti Scialfa caused much conversation at the time for obvious reasons.

Oh and, in a further effort to distance the work and tour from his former music, Bruce added a horn section – The Horns of Love. Those horns aren’t something I enjoy listening to, I’ll be honest. They trample all over ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ and their toots and parps over ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Glory Days’ don’t do anything for me. I reckon it would be a while before Bruce really figured out how to add the extended horn section into his live set-up**.

The shows on this tour were also stripped of on-stage spontaneity and the setlists were much more rigid. There’s also some strange moments – very rehearsed and repeated nightly – that make for odd listening. Whereas Live 1975/1985 featured the “Bruce’s Vietnam Dodge” story or tales about his relationship with his father, LA Sports Arena, California 1988 features a surreal 8-minute long ‘caper’ with Bruce and Clarence sitting on a park bench talking about ‘adult’ subjects such as marriage and kids in the build up to a horn-addled  All That Heaven Will Allow’. In fact the video below shows just that scene as well as the fact that it’s the same routine every night***.

But but but. Do not get me wrong. This is still a great live show. It’s fucking Springsteen after all and even with the sense of drama and fascinating confusion that shadow it this set is bloody good. Just check out the track listing:

Set One
“Tunnel of Love”
“Be True”
“Adam Raised a Cain”
“Two Faces”
“All That Heaven Will Allow”
“Seeds”
“Roulette”
“Cover Me”
“Brilliant Disguise”
“Spare Parts”
“War ”
“Born in the U.S.A.”

Set Two
“Tougher Than the Rest”
“Ain’t Got You”
“She’s the One”
“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”
“I’m a Coward”
“I’m on Fire”
“One Step Up”
“Part Man, Part Monkey”
“Backstreets
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Light of Day”

First Encore
“Happy Birthday to Roy Orbison”
“Born to Run”
“Hungry Heart”
“Glory Days”
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”

Second Encore
“Have Love, Will Travel”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”
“Sweet Soul Music”
“Raise Your Hand”

Yes; that is ‘Roulette’ sitting in there rubbing shoulders with a searing version of ‘Seeds’. Yes; that’s 8 songs from Tunnel of Love and they all hold their ground with some of the heavy weights of Bruce’s catalogue, specifically the meld of ‘Ain’t Got You’ into ‘She’s the One’. Video again taken from another night but…

There’s no ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Badlands’ and ‘Born To Run’ is the acoustic recasting that would also feature on the Chimes of Freedom EP later that year but, with his desire to present his newer music in a more serious, less Bruuuuce light seemingly sated toward the end of the second set, Springsteen’s classics deliver in the same crowd delighting way they always did and will – ‘Backstreets’ is dedicated to the fans and they react accordingly and when ‘Rosalita’ kicks in the roof is torn off (Bruce making a point by singing “you don’t have to call me lieutenant Rosie.. But. Don’t. Call. Me. BOSS”). The songs from Tunnel of Love were already well known to the audience – the album had been out a good six months by now – and cuts such as ‘Brilliant Disguise’, ‘One Step Up’ and even ‘Two Faces’  are met by rapturous applause and, with the band now well broken in on the tunes and their roles (this was still only Scialfa and Nils Lofgren’s second tour), delivered as strong as the deeper cuts. ‘Spare Parts’, once its oh-so-80s piano intro is done, rips along like the scorcher it is on record.

Tunnel of Love was a near-perfect album that captured Bruce at his most insightful and human. The tour that followed marked not only the live casting of these songs but an artist trying to recast himself too. This tour would be the last time he would play with the E Street Band until 1999, he would shortly divorce his wife and begin a lasting relationship with Patti Scialfa, spend time attending to his personal life and his inner turmoil, taking a five year break from his career in the process. As such LA Sports Arena, California 1988 makes for a fascinating and captivating listen capturing the end of an era, the closing of the first chapter of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I’ll be listening again for sure, £4 well spent.

*In comparison to the wealth of B-Sides he could’ve chosen but then I believe it was part of the ‘relationships’ theme of the show.

**I still don’t think they’re necessary. Live the E Street Band is one of the unstoppable, unbeatable things that doesn’t need padding out. It tears the roof off when in no-frills mode.

***Again, nothing that new, I read a piece in Rolling Stone from the Magic tour rehearsals that detailed that all of the gestures and interactions are pre-rehearsed rather than ad-libbed but then that’s not an 8 minute ‘bit’ involving a park bench.

Least to Most: Bruce – Born To Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Ahem; Human Touch

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

Least to Most: Bruce – 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.