Tramps Like Us: A Guide To Bruce Springsteen, Part 2 (1987-2014)

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The magic of Springsteen is pervasive; his strident sound has influenced countless modern bands, including Arcade Fire, Constantines, and the Gaslight Anthem.  I once went to go see Jeff Mangum play a very intimate show at the Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock, NY.  In the crowd before the show, I was standing next to a larger man who was chatting up a girl next to him.  He asked her where she was from, and she said New Jersey, although she was obviously not all that interested in the conversation.  When he pressed her further, she admitted she was from Asbury Park.  As soon as he learned this, he exclaimed “Oh, you’re from Asbury Park?  You must LOVE Bruce Springsteen!”.  She replied that no, she wasn’t really a fan.  He was flabbergasted at the fact that someone could be from Asbury Park, NJ, and not like Bruce Springsteen.  I’m pretty sure he struck out from there.

Tunnel Of Love (1987)

Released October 9th, 1987 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Brilliant Disguise” (#5 US)

Tunnel Of Love” (#9 US)

One Step Up” (#13 US)

Tougher Than The Rest” (#13 UK)

Spare Parts” (#32 UK)

A much more reserved affair after the brassy bombast of Born In The U.S.A., Tunnel Of Love is audibly more of a dated Eighties-AOR album, but with the hushed reverence of Nebraska filling in for the against-all-odds push of Born In The U.S.A..  The desperate criminals and fringe elements of Nebraska are here replaced with lovers wrestling with structural issues of trust and friendship.  It sold well, although well short of their highwater mark, and the masses he’d cultivated seemed unsure of what to make of it.  It was starkly autobiographical, mirroring his crumbling relationship with his wife, actress Julianne Phillips; the two would divorce in 1989, right around the time Springsteen would fire the E-Street Band.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_91hNV6vuBY]

The simplest love song the Boss had written to date, and it’s a good one to soundtrack epic dances with people you love.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMmincfTgnM]

“There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark, brother / It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idnJnjV_8rg]

– That cold moment when you wonder if they’re still in love with you, or whether they might be finding love with someone else.

Human-Touch-album-cover-010

Human Touch and Lucky Town (1992)

Released March 31st, 1992 on Columbia Records

Human Touch peaked at #1 UK, #2 US

Lucky Town peaked at #2 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Human Touch” (#11 UK, #16 US)

57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” (#32 UK, #68 US)

Better Days

Leap Of Faith

If I Should Fall Behind

Lucky Town

They were released on the same day in 1992, and the bare fact of the matter is that Lucky Town is pretty good and Human Touch really isn’t.  Lucky Town has some substance to it; it’s more minimal, and expresses a desire to start over and take stock, of both himself and of the nation.  “Better Days” is the perfect post-divorce song, while “Souls Of The Departed” addresses the First Gulf War.  Human Touch, by contrast, is comprised of the sort of generic pop songs that he used to toss off and then sell off to lesser artists; beside the title track, there’s very little to recommend it, unless you’re looking to soundtrack a period piece using throwaway AOR tracks.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmwJQ62Cs_o]

The exuberant gospel of a man finding his footing in love again after dark days.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfgNAoLB1XE]

The war over there and the war at home, considered together.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5spsKjK7j4]

What a track off of Nebraska would sound like, if it were recorded by a slick studio band.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsQTVcCh9Ks]

The only track on Human Touch worth anything, this one hits with some real emotional punch, and the studio slickness works in its favour rather than against it.

16127acf9a52aa0f3eb291f351e5ef7f8e122407

The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)

Released November 21st, 1995 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #11 US

Singles:

The Ghost Of Tom Joad” (#26 UK)

By the mid-1990s the cultural focus had been taken off of Boomer icons like Springsteen in favour of the denser, punkier rock favoured by Xers like Nirvana, Soundgarden, et al. The Ghost Of Tom Joad was released without much media fanfare, which is a shame as it was the best album he’d released in ten years. He returned to the hard-times and desperate people of The River and Nebraska, and channeled the latter album’s stark intimacy, recording only five songs with a small backing band and letting the rest stand on their own. The focus here was on the plight of the downtrodden across America; the title references a character from The Grapes Of Wrath and the struggles of people in dying factory towns, disenfranchised war veterans, and illegal immigrants looking for a better life. It would be the last album he would record before reforming the E-Street Band in 1999.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4gra-OuONI]

Rage Against The Machine does a pretty good cover of this song, but the gripping nature of just the acoustic and the hushed voice can’t be beat.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-hzmG-fc2A]

Another examination of how the jobs vanished, the wars raged on, and the American dream began to sour.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVoRn60r6t4]

One of the songs on the album dealing explicity with the migration of Mexicans across the southern border of the U.S. looking for a better life, like waves of immigrants before them.

The Rising (2002)

Released July 30th, 2002 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

The Rising” (#94 UK, #52 US)

Lonesome Day” (#39 UK)

Waitin’ On A Sunny Day

After the E-Street Band was reunited in 1999, they spent a long time touring, getting up to speed. Then 9/11 happened, and a shaken Springsteen began writing songs that reflected America as he saw it in the nervous aftermath of that black Tuesday. There is a tale (told in a Rolling Stone article, and possibly apocryphal) that says that a stranger stopped Springsteen on the street a few days after 9/11 and told him that “we need you now”. The result was The Rising, which, despite being centered primarily around Springsteen’s reactions to 9/11, marked a triumphant return of a band, as opposed to a man. They found a public that was more than willing to embrace this return as well, for the music they were making was the emotions that were being evoked on a national scale. It was all classic Springsteen, of course: characters suffering through dark, terrible times and emerging with renewed sense of hope, and joy.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuBRgq6nT7s]

Man, this song was everywhere back in the early 2000s.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOm-uIPzqpI]

A building, explosive gospel rock number chronicling the climbing of an NYFD firefighter as he climbed one of the WTC towers following the collisions.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnkJa6HdgJw]

Obama Campaign Songs, part 1.  The song became emblematic of both post-9/11 NYC and post-Katrina New Orleans, but was actually written in honour of the revitalization attempts in his hometown of Asbury Park.

SPRINGSTEEN_DEVILS+DUST-7X7_site-500x500

Devils & Dust (2005)

Released April 26th, 2005 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 US

Singles:

Devils & Dust” (#72 US)

All The Way Home

A return to stark, acoustic songcraft, in the vein of Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad.  The subject matter is a little lighter than either of those albums, however; while the characters are beaten down and desperate, they aren’t the grubbing criminals of the former, and the latter’s visions of Steinbeck filtered through Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are also conspicuously missing.  Instead, it’s thematically all over the place:  there are some cinematically gloomy numbers, some sweet love songs, and some somber, lonely tracks.  “Reno”, a frank, nearly pornographic tale of man and a Mexican prostitute, kept Starbucks from agreeing to cross-merchandise the album – either that, or the Boss’ well-known aversion to corporate actions in politics.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vQHqPyxFq4]

“Fear’s a dangerous thing / It can turn your heart black / You can trust it’ll take your God-filled soul / fill it with devils and dust”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjNHMU4kY8s]

What could be cheap porno thrills turns into a lonely tale of a man seeking salvation wherever he can.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XelwSWXPMrA]

In which a man comes to terms with the fact that having a terrible father does not necessarily mean he’ll be a terrible father in turn.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)

Released April 25th, 2006 on Columbia Records

A cover album, the first in the band’s entire career, and a much, much more loose affair than anything that had come before.  Most of the songs contained on this album are songs that the band was playing together for the first time; the joy and exuberance of this is evident in the recording.  The folk standards presented here have been done by many artists over the years, but Springsteen learned them all first from Pete Seeger records.  There is a major difference here, however:  where Seeger’s recordings are very sparse (literally just a man and a banjo at times), Springsteen and Co. sound absolutely huge throughout, shouting these slices of Americana into the heavens themselves.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=by6QKV8qyWo]

The old fiddle standard, brought to ragged life here.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_NDH5H0RuE]

Remember the end of Deadwood, folks?  This remains a stunning version of the song.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plBmwPYIG9g]

It was an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.  I don’t think I need to say much more.

SPRINGSTEEN_MAGIC_5X5_site-500x500

Magic (2007)

Released September 25th, 2007 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Radio Nowhere” (#96 UK)

Girls In Their Summer Clothes” (#95 US)

The second E-Street Band record of the 21st Century falls a little flat after the majestic heft of *The Rising*.  There’s no real theme here, just a collection of songs that seem a little too deliberate to have any honest emotional weight to them.  It often feels like it wants to take flight, like it were Born To Run or The River, but it’s kept into a very specific, digital-age mode by professional caution and modern production.  It’s pretty close to approximating those old blast-off albums, but there’s something just a shade *too* mature about it.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhyu4Rh_w5Q]

The E-Street Band is in fine form on this track.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8PB1a1c9zA]

A tribute to the freedom of that warm summer breeze.

Working On A Dream (2009)

Released January 27th, 2009 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Working On A Dream” (#95 US)

My Lucky Day

The Wrestler” (#93 UK)

What Love Can Do

Working On A Dream ultimately just feels like a continuation of Magic – a collection of unrelated tracks that all come close to sounding like the E-Street Band of old but feeling a little too deliberately produced and written to really be a part of that wild era.  The only real difference between the two albums is that Magic was bogged down by a feeling of malaise at the end of the Bush era and Working On A Dream is more of an artifact of the rush of hope that was felt at the beginning of the Obama era.  There are moments contained here where the band seems to be able to step outside of itself and capture that old magic, but they’re not at all numerous.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDqrniE3Uy8]

A rollicking old tune, like those of old.  There’s a snatch of “I Was Made For Loving You” in here.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ie5RJo8SF-Y]

A loving tribute to the late Danny Federici

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OSvJvSwmd4]

The haunting track from the award-winning movie of the same name.

Wrecking Ball (2012)

Released March 5th, 2012 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

We Take Care Of Our Own” (#111 UK)

Rocky Ground

Death To My Hometown

The years between Working On A Dream and Wrecking Ball should have been fertile ground for the latter; the American economy crumbled, after all, coming perilously close to a full collapse.  The hard times of the Great Recession are present here, of course, but instead of bringing out the impassioned desperation of The River (another product of a brutal recession) or the working-man social activism of The Ghost Of Tom Joad it remains beholden to the careful, cautious plodding that has marked every album since The Rising.  The album takes the form of a good old-fashioned folk-mass call to rise up against those who have plundered America’s regular citizens, but some of the elements – trip-hop here, a rap verse there – seem specifically calculated to draw in the youth of 2012, and in this they fall terribly flat.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3Bz0d2xm7U]

Obama Campaign Songs, Part 2.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NypaeRXapu0]

An effective hootenanny about lifting yourself from poverty by any means necessary.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTDNW9BfzfY]

A hymn to the possible that manages to out-hope the rest of the album by a fair margin

High Hopes (2014)

Released January 14th, 2014 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

High Hopes

High Hopes replaces Steven Van Zandt with Rage Against The Machine guitarist / fellow traveler Tom Morello and the effect is galvanizing.  Morello’s post-RATM work has been mixed (his work has The Nightwatchman has been decent enough but forays into projects like Street Sweeper Social Club have been godawful) but on High Hopes he brings an exuberant sense of modernity to the Boss that Wrecking Ball tried for in vain.  On recent albums (pretty much everything from Magic onwards) Bruce and the E-Street Band have been close to capturing that old, uh, magic, but it’s felt like a reticent attitude towards modern production has made for an awkward tension in the songs.  That tension is not present on High Hopes.  It’s replaced by a willingness to embrace big sounds, a milieu in which Springsteen has almost always succeeded; even a track like “Harry’s Place”, which cops an Eighties Miami Vice-synth vibe, sounds immediately modern despite any other indications.  While there are spots that fall flat (“Just Like The Fire Would” starts off like aged John Mellencamp, and “The Wall” tends to drag throughout, bringing the last third of the album down with it) the overall quality is much better than anything Springsteen has achieved since The Rising.  The lineup is odd, though; part cover album and part outtakes from the Magic / Working On A Dream/ Wrecking Ball sessions, there’s no real cohesiveness to the album.  Even odder, the album works best where Springsteen ends up covering himself:  first on the crescendo-chasing version of “American Skin (41 Shots)” (a song about police racism that once got the Boss called a “floating fag” by the head of the Brotherhood of Policemen) and second on a reworked version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which Morello himself had covered at one point.  The High Hopes version of the latter track ends up being the best version, amping up the quiet despair of the original 1995 track and eschewing the somewhat dated stomp that characterizes the RATM version.  This stands in as an appropriate metaphor for the album as a whole:  Springsteen recaptures a dynamic, cinematic sense of theatricality and Morello modernizes the sound without resorting to busting out the Zeppelin / Sabbath riffs that marked the more popular parts of his career.

Standouts:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOPDhoZH91g]

One of the cover tracks, but with lyrics like “Tell me someone now, what’s the price / I wanna buy some time and maybe live my life / I wanna have a wife, / I wanna have some kids I wanna look in their eyes and know they’ll stand a chance” it could very easily be one of the man’s own.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GkD9azVoXo]

A redo of a song Springsteen originally did in 2000 that was likely brought back into the fold after the Trayvon Martin incident.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MSEisIGAlU]

One of the more beautiful love songs the Boss has written over his career, direct and to the point.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsU015JWNJs]

God, Morello really is a welcome addition to the E Street Band, I hope he sticks around.

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