Bruce Springsteen built his legacy uncovering the romance and tragedy in the lives of the American working class. Unashamedly epic and wilfully theatrical, The Boss has taken humble tales of dead end towns, ill fated lovers, and deferred dreams, and turned them into stadium shaking anthems.
No artist before or since has so fully understood or embodied the repressed desires of the average working man. Earnest to the point of caricature, Springsteen has never been afraid of embracing populism and cliché. His music retains a wonderful universality that allows The Boss to juxtapose richly poetic sequences with these utterly forthright and unashamedly corny sentiments. Simply put, if it needs to be said, he’ll say it, however silly it may sound.
Over the decades Springsteen fostered a sense of integrity and intensity that has allowed him to appropriate the great imagery of the American expanse without ever appearing disingenuous. Equally as his mood darkened, he challenged his global audience by exposing them to a more inglorious image of his homeland without sacrificing his soaring anthemic sweep.
Today, as Springsteen puts the world to rights and conquers the charts with new album Wrecking Ball; here at Guitar Planet we thought it was about time we brushed up on the pivotal releases that made Bruce, The Boss.
Having reasserted his importance in the post-9/11 world with The Rising and Devils & Dust, Springsteen turned his attention to the music industry and social cohesion on 2007’s “Radio Nowhere”. Far from slamming other artists or saying “it was better in my day”, this urgent driving rock anthem spoke to a splintered society, divided by cultural niches, and the fading power of once universal media (in this case the radio).
As the track drives and crashes with fantastic ease, Springsteen’s cry of “I want a thousand guitars, I want pounding drums, I want a million different voices speaking in tongues” is undeniably urgent. Ironically, despite being one of the finest made for the radio anthems in years, “Radio Nowhere” never stood a chance of reaching the top ten, and fell to the social divide it so brilliantly skewers.
It is a testament to Springsteen’s artistic integrity that, in an attempt to preserve the thematic cohesion and mood of the near misanthropic Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The Boss was happy to abandon an album’s worth of A-grade material. Patti Smith was the greatest beneficiary as she was gifted the biggest hit of entire career, “Because The Night”.
The ten tracks The Boss retained marked his most daring departure to date. Seen as an anti-commercial move in 1978, Springsteen became a realist, embracing sombre themes and dwelling on tragedy as much as hope. The great enlivening swells remained in place, but even on the album’s most upbeat numbers (“Prove It All Night”, “Badlands”, “The Promised Land”), the escapist fantasies and love stories are set against sinister and increasingly hopeless backdrops.
The endless hi-way that once promised escape now led right back to the same pitiful job and failing romance. Springsteen no longer offered his listeners the chance to jump on his backseat and ride away; instead he made them face up to the harshness of existence, urging them not to succumb, but to make do. It was a decision that may have robbed him of the odd hit single, but made him one of the most respected and admired voices in the rock’n’roll cannon.
Having watched income disparity balloon during the Reagan/Bush era, Springsteen turned to America’s talismanic social commentators Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck for inspiration. Bringing back the dustbowl character of Tom Joad (Grapes Of Wrath and “The Ballad Of Tom Joad”), Springsteen mixed the desperate imagery of 1930 with the sound of Guthrie’s folk, and placed it in an unmistakably modern setting (“Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge – Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge”).
This stirring and deeply challenging track truly came to life in the live arena, when Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morrello joined The E Street Band on stage. Springsteen supplied an expansive and earthy tale and Morrollo unleashed a gargantuan two-minute solo that perfectly captured the tumult, desperation and scope of Springsteen’s words. A must see masterpiece.
By 1982 Bruce Springsteen had fully embraced a more macabre view of American society. While on the road, Springsteen began to compose material for a new album. Cobbling together a collection of demos using just a harmonica and his acoustic or electric guitar, Springsteen wrote a spectral album that seemed to capture a decaying society full of murders and flawed heroes. The songs were so stark and intense in their lyricism that the big band treatment would have only diminished their scything veracity.
In the shrewdest move of his career Springsteen released the demos in their unpolished and in some cases unfinished forms. Nebraska was harrowing. With no glistening keys, warm sax solos or rambunctious guitars, the listener couldn’t hide from, much less ignore, the album’s bitter narratives. Far from repulsing fans, Nebraska was wholeheartedly embraced, proving definitively that, beneath the grandstanding and studio polish, lay one of the great American songwriters. To this day, Nebraska remains unsurpassed in Springsteen’s catalogue.
This look back at The Boss’ pivotal moments had to end with one of the big three. Each album has its merits. The polished West Side Story excess of Born To Run (1975) turned a spirited hopeful into an international superstar. The River (1980) married genuine hits with heartache, cultivating The Boss’s flair for moral ambiguity. 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. did something entirely unexpected; it restored Springsteen’s never-back-down spirit.
Embodied by the brilliant “No Surrender”, Born In The U.S.A. exists in the same torrid surroundings as Nebraska and Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but rather than struggling meekly or succumbing to amoral enterprise, these characters stand up and fight. Sure, the darkness is still there. The title track sees a dejected Vietnam vet struggling to survive in his homeland, “Glory Days” is a drunken lament to a life wasted, and “My Hometown” tells a shameful tale of racial violence and social deterioration, but through all this the album still sounds bloody triumphant.
Instantaneous and irresistible Born in The U.S.A overwhelms with hit after hit (seven singles from this LP reached the US Top 10) and an unavoidable (and largely unintended) aura of optimism. Far from destitute, Springsteen’s cast of characters, have resolve. He might be blind drunk, he may have married the next best thing, and his job might suck, but he’s got friendship, a strong work ethic, and damn it, he’s going to dust off his motorcycle and ride off into the sunset one last time.
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