Craig Finn – Faith In The Future

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Craig Finn – Faith In The Future

Craig Finn has spent most of his time fronting Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis rockers The Hold Steady engaged in tackling the big themes of growth and life.  Albums like Separation Sunday and Stay Positive are about the big changes in people’s lives, about the big picture of failure that his characters live through, about friends who grow up together, grow apart, and find themselves again.  They’re about how resurrections really feel, and about how words alone could never save us.  Faith In The Future, his second solo album, dials back these ambitions to take a look at the minutiae of the lives of new(ish) characters.  There’s no Holly, no Gideon, no Charlemagne on this record.  Instead, we have a narrator telling a woman that he’s still in search of their son, but he took a detour into a messianic desert cult for a while.  There’s a murder being plotted in a scuzzy club.  There’s Sarah, an ex-girlfriend calling to try to make amends about how things ended while avoiding angering her unstable new boyfriend.  There’s Finn himself, scared and wanting to be drunk on a roof in Brooklyn on September 11th, 2001, trying to figure out what the future’s supposed to mean.

To be sure, there are ample observances that hearken back to lines that have come out of Finn’s mouth before.  Everyone’s still searching for their saviour, and while there’s no pipes made out of Pringles cans “Sandra From Scranton” comes off like the second draft of the girl from “Lord, I’m Discouraged” or “Joke About Jamaica”.  These are songs that are very easily identifiable as Finn’s own, in the same way that guys jetting off from death-trap New Jersey towns to seek their desperate fortunes in the wilds of America are forever stamped by Bruce Springsteen.  If you’re in a dying industrial belt town, working in a restaurant, going out to shows, slowly slipping into bad addictions to love and hard drugs, you’re a Craig Finn character, and Faith In The Future is a textbook study in them.  Musically, he keeps things spare, mostly acoustic guitars, drums, and basic, muted keyboards; to go back to the Springsteen reference, these are the characters of Darkness On The Edge Of Town played out in the poppier half of The River.

While it lacks the epic arena punch of his band’s work, it’s a heartfelt enough album to satisfy longtime fans of that band.  As a matter of fact, I would have almost preferred to hear “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching For Our Son” as a full-on Hold Steady song.  Still, it’s a solid collection of songs that speak to the fact that Finn’s not just a great frontman, but a great storyteller as well.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tramps Like Us: A Guide To Bruce Springsteen, Part 1 (1973-1984)

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In his day Bob Dylan was referred to as the heir to Woody Guthrie.  The singer’s early days – simply chorded folk tunes that gave shape to the musical expression of the political fervour of the time – were certainly influenced by the fellow Minnesota native.  As the 1960s progressed on into the 1970s, however, Dylan lost that sense of Everyman solidarity in favour of psychedelic word vomit, Nashville love songs, Christian revivalism, and eventually himself.  Bruce Springsteen arrived in the middle of this slow transformation bearing more than a bit of Dylan influence on his sleeve; his wordy songs were folk-inflected sketches of regular life in his New Jersey homeland and they reveled in pure language as much as they did in Atlantic seashore touchstones.  Unlike Dylan, however, Springsteen never held himself aloof; where Dylan fell into the hype of being THE preeminent poet of the rock ‘n roll generation, Springsteen retained his common touch – his sense of wonder in the ordinary – despite the rapid explosion of his career.

Bruce Springsteen – nicknamed “The Boss” by his bandmates because he was the one who collected the money and distributed the pay – arrived on the scene as one of John Lennon’s Working Class Heroes.  His songs were caught up in the struggles of ordinary people and he rarely deviated from this course.  He wrote about the American Dream, for sure, studded with muscle cars and aching for the freedom of an open highway, but he also chronicled the collapse of that dream.  When the factories began to close down and the good jobs began to flee to places where they could be performed for exploitative levels of pay, Springsteen was there to sing about how hard it was to find work you could support your family on.  His characters struggled to make ends meet, got pregnant too early, joined unions, and wrestled with the problems of life as powerless but hopeful people.  In an era when rock ‘n’ roll had developed a sense of elitism about itself, he was the antithesis:  a working class joe singing about other working class joes with same sort of theatrical flourish that trust-funded hippies used to sing about themselves.

Springsteen, then, could be considered the real heir to Woody Guthrie – at his heart, a folk singer who wears his class and political affiliations on his sleeve and reaches out to everyone in his songcraft.  There are a great number of people who don’t really get what the Boss is all about; there are large swaths of the population who think that his biggest hit, “Born In The U.S.A.”, is the same sort of unthinking American jingoist patriotism that Toby Keith is seemingly made out of.  The lyrics, of course, prove that to be a lie almost immediately, but it didn’t stop Reagan from trying to appropriate it for a Presidential campaign and it doesn’t stop people from thinking that the man is a flag-wrapped Republican even today.  This guide is for those people:  the people who need a working class hero, the people who remember the American Dream, and the people who feel that it might be a lie after all.

When I first wrote this guide, eight months ago, I took a trip across the border to buy some crap in Niagara Falls, NY and I stopped at a Days Inn near the border crossing for a quick beer and lunch. The lounge behind the built-in Dennys was this artifact from the early Eighties: the tables and walls were vintage from the late Seventies, and the atmosphere screamed “we just banned smoking indoors yesterday”. There was a pinball machine on one wall, and next to it an aged jukebox, which was playing Born To Run.

I kind of had to at that point.

Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. (1973)

Released January 5th, 1973 on Columbia Records

Singles:

Blinded By The Light

Spirit In The Night

After kicking around the New Jersey rock circuit for five years, Springsteen was offered a record deal with Columbia.  The album was originally recorded quickly and cheaply, so that as much of the major label advance could be pocketed as was possible.  The result is a folky, roots-inflected rock ‘n’ roll album with a lyrical and vocal style that is heavily reminiscent of Bob Dylan.  Columbia president Clive Davis gave the usual complaint that he “didn’t hear a single”, however, so the band wrote and cut two of the best tracks, “Spirit In The Night” and “Blinded By The Light” last minute.  It’s a tribute to the boundless energy and resilience of youth, with a steely-eyed sense of humour and a busy rush of imagery that carves out an image of a time and a place as well as any novel about the Jersey Shore in the early 1970s ever could.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjxbOe7p8C0]

The original never graced the charts once, although Manfred Mann of course took their cover of it to #1 late in 1977.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5E2HGJA2nzo]

A slow, aching ballad that unfolds like a dream.  “But on your bed, Mary, I can see the shadow of a noose / I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight and love me so loose”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu8vpwiDFsA]

That smooth sax intro is the most startling thing on the album, aside perhaps from the narrator and Crazy Janey makin’ love in the dirt.

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

Released September 11th, 1973

Singles:

4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

The second album followed the same commercial fortunes as the first:  it was critically acclaimed, but sold in middling-at-best quantities.  It was quite a bit different from the debut, however:  it cuts down a bit on the folk influences, adds in elements of jazz, funk, and R&B, and stretches out in a big way.  To say that the album sprawls is a bit of an understatement; several of the songs top seven minutes, and the closing track, “New York City Serenade”, runs just shy of ten minutes.  In retrospect, it loses focus here and there, but the the standouts here are some of the best work ever made in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.  It was a grand statement, a kiss-off to the Jersey Shore scene he’d been birthed from and a summation by a man who would soon leave to find his own way in the world.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgFHM8HMbWQ]

A long tribute to love, freedom, youth, and the boardwalk scenes that he’d grown up in.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtPEZX6wAzg]

Nearly eight minutes of teenage-dramatic switchblade-studded street fight poetry

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXWVSussrt0]

A swinging number that used to close out the band’s concerts until the mid-1980s.

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Born To Run (1975)

Released August 25th, 1975 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #36 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Born To Run” (#23 US)

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (#83 US)

The juggernaut that really launched his career, Born To Run took forever to record when compared to the first two albums.  The studio sessions were reportedly tense and Springsteen was angry that he couldn’t properly translate the sounds he was hearing in his head to what was coming out on tape.  In the end, though, they nailed it:  there is a wild, free sound prevalent through the album that makes you want to clutch a fist to your chest and fall to your knees.  The characters on Born To Run are drunk on possibilities and all too aware of their own failings.  Salvation, when it even can be found, lies in the prototypically American freedom of an open road and a fast, muscular car that can take you anywhere in that wide-open land.  In the end, though, that freedom of youth and possibility ends in darkness and despair:  see the side-closers, “Backstreets” and especially the epic “Jungleland” for further details.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMB3M43AEpc]

I keep coming back to this song, over and over again.  Whenever anything seems overwhelming, or whenever life seems to be heading down a downward spiral, I put “Thunder Road” on.  It offers hope, after a fashion:  the only salvation that is offered lies beneath this dirty hood, so let’s just get in the car and **drive**.  Destination not necessary.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL-HL3ELvFI]

Notable for the sax work of the late Clarence Clemons and for the first appearance of Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt, who helped arrange the horn section on this track.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3t9SfrfDZM]

“The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive / Everybodys on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR_0nbEzVdY]

About as theatrical as Springsteen has ever gotten, the closing track on Born To Run is an epic sweep of desperate characters trying to make good one last time and getting cut down for it.  “Outside the street’s on fire / in a real death waltz / between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy / And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all / they just stand back and let it all be / And in the quick of the night / they reach for their moment / and try to make an honest stand / But they wind up wounded / not even dead / tonight in Jungleland” was the first encounter I ever had with the Boss, as it’s used for artistic effect as a poem at the beginning of the unabridged version of The Stand.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

Released June 2nd, 1978 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #5 US

Singles:

Prove It All Night” (#33 US)

Badlands” (#42 US)

The Promised Land

This is where the endless dreams of youth ended for Springsteen’s characters.  They’re still desperate to grab life and shake it for all it’s worth, but life has already grabbed them and is in the slow, painful process of wearing them down.  Idealism and dreams turn to sour betrayal:  the hardships of love, the drudgery of the factory life, the terrible things you sometimes have to do to make ends meet.  There can be redemption, in the end, but it has to be worked for, and in the end it may not even be worth it.  Still, you work it, because in the end there’s nothing else you can do.  It was aided by Little Steven’s tight production work, which brought the edge out with a vengeance.  Tellingly, while the album sold (and continues to sell) quite well, there weren’t any real hit singles:  the buying public of the disco era wanted nothing to do with any song that wasn’t starting a party.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF1jH6Cv0tk]

“You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come / Well, don’t waste your time waiting”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yx1N3Kjx1OU]

The band evokes every bit of tension and longing implicit in the lyrics with just hi-hats and piano for the first 45 seconds.

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

One of the two epic side-closers on this album, “Racing In The Street” tells the tale of what happens when the fire that runs through the blood sacrifices everything, even love.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zS5qRG_no-I]

“Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny / Something that they just can’t face / Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it / they carry it with them every step that they take / ’til some day they just cut it loose / cut it loose or let it drag ’em down / Where no one asks any questions / or looks too long in your face / in the darkness on the edge of town” – My favourite song they do, by a country mile.

The River (1980)

Released October 17th, 1980 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Hungry Heart” (#44 UK, #5 US)

Fade Away” (#20 US)

I Wanna Marry You

Sherry Darling

The River” (#35 UK)

Cadillac Ranch

Point Blank

The River is a stretched-out double LP that combines two disparate albums:  one, a collection of songs that continue the hard-luck, working-class hell stories of Darkness On The Edge Of Town; and two, a collection of songs that feel lighter, poppier, and more like the fun and joy-filled moments that made their contemporary live shows such a sprawling blast.  The two combine to make something epic, mature, and capable of salvation; the expert mixture of the light and the dark evokes a more three-dimensional view of the world that Springsteen’s characters inhabit.  The world isn’t all fun and games, but neither is it a working-rut drag of bad luck and hard money.  The result is a disillusioned yet gentle playfulness that struck a delicate balance amidst a brutal recession on the cusp of the Reagan Eighties.

Standouts:

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

Originally, the album was supposed to be a single disc (the post-Darkness album) and this was to be its title.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8yphj2hUI8]

I’ve always thought of this track as the lighter flip-side/precursor to Nebraska‘s “Atlantic City”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQSn26zCXYQ]

The band’s biggest hit to that point in time, it hit #5 on the U.S. singles chart.  Not bad for a song that had originally been written by Springsteen for the Ramones.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAB4vOkL6cE]

The most emotionally effective song on the album, by far.  “Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote / And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”

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

Originally recorded for the Darkness sessions, although it comes off as too weary and gentle for that album, in the end. Still, “There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnHy_46DfiE]

This song would later go on to inform the writing sessions for Tunnel Of Love; it was also used in Cop Land, if you remember that movie.

Nebraska (1982)

Released September 30th, 1982 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Atlantic City

Reason To Believe

Nebraska is a haunted album, driven by the ghosts of petty criminals and murderers and sung in a hushed tone.  It’s also a rather large anomaly in the band’s career:  Springsteen recorded the demos for the album at home on his 4-track, and the band later cut several of the tracks in full arrangement.  The decision was reached to use the demos, instead; apparently a full-band recording of the album exists somewhere, but it reportedly pales in comparison to the version that was released.  Nebraska is simply Bruce Springsteen and an acoustic guitar, and it is probably the most powerful record he has ever released.  It brings a cap to the dark path his writing had been going down ever since the Rat was gunned down in the tunnels uptown in the climax of “Jungleland”; Charles Starkweather rampages through and is exectued at the end of the title track, the no-good relatives of police officers cause problems, criminals are caught and put away for life, and a man shows up at his father’s door only to find that his father had been gone for years.  It was the direct opposite of the radio-buster that would come two years later.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iir_xAbt-ak]

The darkest thing the man has ever recorded, following the exploits of mass-murderer Charles Starkweather

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3eu1gW-bQ8]

Mob trouble on the boardwalks of Atlantic City, and all our protagonist wants is to carve out a life for him and his girl.  Too bad he’s got debts that no honest man can pay.  This has been covered about a million times.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-wPDmQEy2Y]

Sometimes, you just have to cover for family.  Nothing feels better than blood on blood.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbA_5IpiAyU]

I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with my father as I’d like, so this one always hits me like a slap in the face.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc4UopypcT8]

Somehow, after all the drudgery that gets thrown their way, these characters seem to still have faith and hope.  This would be the final remark for the album, and it’s theme would continue on into the next.

Born In The U.S.A. (1984)

Released June 4th, 1984 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Dancing In The Dark” (#4 UK, #2 US)

Cover Me” (#16 UK, #7 US)

Born In The U.S.A.” (#5 UK, #9 US)

I’m On Fire” (#5 UK, #6 US)

Glory Days” (#5 US)

I’m Goin’ Down” (#9 US)

My Hometown” (#9 UK, #6 US)

After the dour, dark days of Nebraska, Born In The U.S.A. was a massive, modern rev of the E-Street Band engine. The production took a leap into the Eighties, with massive synths, huge drums, and a larger-than-life approach to Springsteen’s songwriting. In contrast to those earlier albums, the songs here featured characters who had come through the fire and were still willing to keep going, with their verve and humour intact. It exploded in the mainstream radio of the day, shooting off hit singles like a heartland rock ‘n’ roll Thriller. It was designed to appeal to everyone, and it did, becoming a cultural touchstone for the Eighties like no other. It would be the height of their commercial success; the next twenty years would see them fade into the background as Generation X took hold of the mainstream, with Springsteen transforming into a sort of elder statesman of rock.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPhWR4d3FJQ]

Reagan didn’t get this song, for whatever reason, and tried to co-opt it, much to the amusement/horror of Springsteen, a staunch Democrat and unionist.  On the surface, if you just listen to the chorus, I guess you could mistake it for an ultra-patriotic song.  It is, but not for the reasons that people often think.  It examines the legacy of Vietnam, and of the veterans who came back to no jobs and no hope.  Sadly still relevant today.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGtE42NYtes]

Has that good-time vibe like one of the upbeat tracks from The River, but it ends with one of the characters chained to a state trooper’s car.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nc_mv46NwT4]

More hard-luck, world-weary lyricism, like Darkness or Nebraska, but the state-of-the-art studio work made it sound like the most massively exuberant story of being left by your wife ever.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrpXArn3hII]

About as intimate a song of desire as you can get with slam-bang Eighties production.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD3DdskaPhs]

No retreat baby, no surrender.  You may remember this one from John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fdZWbIsrFk]

Ah, to be young and in love again.  Now I’m just sort of young and in love.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vQpW9XRiyM]

Nothing’s worse than reliving old memories because you don’t have anything new to relive.  Great song about the people who peak in high school.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=129kuDCQtHs]

Courtney Cox, come on down!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CSFSX-Qh54]

It will have been twenty years since this song next year and it still holds true.