As his residency on Broadway draws to a close, a colossal physical achievement that has seen him perform five shows a week for just over a year, Bruce Springsteen joked that this is the closest thing he’s ever had to a real job.
The type of self-depreciating response you’d expect from a man who has spent the best part of the last 50 years documenting and finding the beauty that lies within the lives of the blue-collar and everyday. A journey that has seen him take to some of the world’s greatest stages and pick up legions of adoring fans along the way.
To celebrate this monumental achievement and the release of his latest live album, Clash have used this an excuse to take a look back at some of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest albums with a beginner’s guide to the man his biggest fans call ‘the Boss’.
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‘Born To Run’ (1975)
The one that put him on the map. ‘Born To Run’ is commonly ranked amongst the greatest albums of all time, and catapulted a young Bruce Springsteen into the mainstream after two records that whilst scoring well with critics had failed to generate much noise commercially.
An album filled with ambitious spirit of hope and dreams, ‘Born to Run’ is very much the living embodiment of the American Dream, as Springsteen romanticises the mundane normalities of everyday life in his native New jersey, brought to life through his vivid, poetic turns of phrase (‘there’s an opera out on the turnpike’, ‘the screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves’).
Springsteen effortlessly combines the wistful lyrical observations of folk artists like Dylan with wall-of-sound type production values that borrowed from genres reaching across Jersey Beat to jazz and soul all topped off with an almighty dollop of heartland rock n’ roll.
Tracks like ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born To Run’ make for heart-pounding anthems of intense, youthful abandon that have since become staples of Springsteen’s live shows, whilst the more reserved and reflective piano-led balladry of ‘Meeting Across The River’ allows for Springsteen’s unique storytelling to thrive in a different setting before the gargantuan eight-minute epic crescendo of ‘Jungleland’, a journey through the heart of blue-collar New Jersey. ‘Born To Run’ is undoubtedly a must listen for any music fan.
‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (1978)
Following up the runaway success of ‘Born To Run’ was amongst the toughest challenges in Springsteen’s career. Over the rigorous recording process of ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ the joy and wonder that flowed throughout its predecessor was lost, in its place stood a more insular, dour Springsteen, replacing the sense of optimism with a degree of cynicism and weariness, emblematic of the state of the USA in 1978 and its increasingly class-driven divides; as we now find Springsteen’s characters emotionally downtrodden (‘Factory’, ‘‘The Promised Land’) and reminiscing of better days (‘Racing In The Street’).
Springsteen still pensively evokes the beautifully detailed images that have become a trademark of his lyricism (meticulously honing in innate ability to capture the tone of his settings), yet this time foregrounding them with a sense of hardship and struggle. An eloquent record that grapples with themes such as class and the human psyche whilst musically flexing between anthemic pomp and pensive balladry. ‘The River’ established Springsteen as a mature narrator of modern folklore.
‘The River’ (1980)
Following up the commercial double whammy of the emphatic, world-beating ‘Born to Run’ and its darker counterpart, 1978’s ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’, was always going to be a challenge for Springsteen. A challenge he tackled head on at the turn of the decade, with a sprawling double album documenting the highs and lows of everyday life in the heartland.
‘The River’ saw Springsteen widen his scope and operate with a freer creative license embarking on a journey that wound through the usual gutsy rock n roll numbers (‘Two Hearts’, ‘The Ties That Bind’), poignant emotional epics (‘The River’, ‘Independence Day’) and dusty stadium rock anthems (‘Hungry Heart’, ‘Jackson Cage’) – alongside a handful of slightly silly chuggers (‘Crush on You’, ‘Cadillac Ranch’).
A firm balance that, that never drags, and avoids the usual double album pitfalls of bagging at the centre. This is the record that scored Springsteen his first top 10 hit in ‘Hungry Heart’, shrugging of the grand flourishes of ‘Born To Run’ and the hard-faced stance of its predecessor in favour of a more jubilant straight-up rock approach, taking its cues in part from the punk movement.
A rich tapestry of well-drawn stories, ‘The River’ remains a stalwart in the Springsteen canon, proving to be both complex and unashamedly simple (often both at the same time) whilst signposting the sort of stadium singalongs that were yet to come in ‘Born In The USA’.
A slow-burn and desolate listen, ‘Nebraska’ represents the other side of Bruce Springsteen. Sidled between two of his grandest releases, ‘Nebraska’ sees Springsteen cut a rather ghostly figure as he grapples with isolation and disillusionment.
The record was born from a series of solo demos Springsteen had pieced together on a four-track cassette of which he recorded in one single day following a year-long touring campaign in support of ‘The River’ (in which he played 140 shows worldwide). After failing to recreate the same darkly haunting feel when played alongside the E Street Band in practice sessions, Springsteen opted instead to put it out in its sparser form.
The record has garnered significant reverence over time, as listeners gradually came to terms with the bleak wilderness the album depicts and the desperate situations its heterogeneous set of characters seek to navigate. From those seeking escape from their tortuous lives (‘Atlantic City’, ‘Johnny 99’) to the small-town tales of individuals dealing with dysfunctional family members (‘Highway Patrolman’, ‘My Father’s House’), there’s a devastating sense of seclusion and realness that resonates throughout the album’s echoing hills.
‘Nebraska’ is arguably Springsteen’s magnum opus and an unflinching exhibit of the power of his storytelling.
‘The Rising’ (2002)
Springsteen’s first studio album to be recorded with the full E Street Band since 1985’s ‘Born In The USA’, ‘The Rising’ proved something of a rebirth for the songwriter after a period of lukewarm critical reactions and a dwindling commercial interest in the 90s.
Recorded predominantly in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on Springsteen’s hometown after a chance encounter with a fan in the wake of the tragedy who told Springsteen “we need you now”; ‘The Rising’ saw Springsteen return with a renewed purpose, reuniting his beloved city after it had been shaken to its very core.
A warm record filled with the usual Springsteen themes of hope and renewal (‘The Rising, My City of Ruins’), paired alongside powerful personal commentaries (‘Empty Sky’, ‘Into the Fire’). Whilst musically ‘The Rising’ strays a little close to the middle of the road, it is the emotive power of the music and its brazen message that makes this such a vital album in Springsteen’s vast back-catalogue.
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'Springsteen On Broadway' is out now.
Words: Rory Marcham
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