Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Super Bowl Watcher's Guide to Bruce's Best

Tonight, the Boss does the big one. Since 2004, the NFL has been frantic for a Super Bowl singer whose nipple won’t malfunction its way out of its wardrobe. (Why else would they have consecutively tapped Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney?) And now Bruce Springsteen, long at the top of the league’s list, has agreed to play.

He’s proud of his new album and he wants people to hear it, although it’s far from his best (more on that coming in the days ahead). I say, if his “12-minute party” turns you on to the Boss, don’t waste your time on the latest chapter in the anthology. It’s die-hards-only. But Springsteen has been seeing a resurgence in popularity and relevance lately, so here’s a digest of his most worthwhile records for the 2009 listener. (Sorry, Mr. President, Born in the U.S.A. didn’t make the list, so that means no “I’m on Fire.”)

1. Born to Run, 1975. The still-young beach bum took some time off from playing grungy Jersey Shore bars and trying his hand at surfing to kick back, watch some cult movies, and ruminate on what’s next. He came away with a decidedly heavier, less funky sound, and he pared down his lighthearted, mile-a-minute storytelling to deal with young people whose lives had dimensions beyond the beach at greasy lake or looking for trouble in "the City." These eight tales are adrift after high-school graduation, they are discontentedly working-class, they are groping for sex or crime or music or any means to stamp out that stubbornly smoldering “ordinary” in their lives. They were enough to save Springsteen’s career, and with them the singer left all the lame Bob Dylan comparisons in the dirt (he was never equipped to live up to them) to become just Bruce.

2. Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978. What happens to Born to Run's day-job workers and late-night-salvation seekers when they age three years, settle for settling down, slip into that loathed quotidian existence? Whereas Springsteen’s young characters inherently retain hope on Born to Run, even as promises are broken, on Darkness on the Edge of Town, a chorus’s triumphant declarations (“I believe in a promised land”) will old dreams to live on even as they vanish out the exhaust pipe on “that dusty road from Monroe to Angeline.” Musically, Darkness strips down the mounds of electric guitars and harpsichord and saxophone that gave its predecessor that epic whop, coming out more organic and, in parts, more poignant.

3. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, 1973. A discombobulated horn section mumbles out a jocular eight-bar (sort of) introduction to this LP’s opening track, then Springsteen glides in with a crisp funk part on the rhythm guitar. “Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot / All the little girls’ souls go weak when the man child gives them a double shot,” he raps, and we’re right back where we left off on debut effort Greetings from Asbury Park--same cast of loony beach bums; same fast-talking vocals, perhaps telling us nothing at all; same dance-happy funk. Right? Nope. Springsteen's second album is deeper musically: drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez earns his nickname by paying in kind with syncopation, the beefy horn section gives Springsteen a funk troupe worthy of any competition, and keyboardist David Sancious lays an intractable foundation (check his solo on “Kitty’s Back”). Equally important, while the A side is more or less a much-improved Greetings, Side B opens a new chapter in the annals of Springsteen. Each of its three songs are 7-minute-plus epics, his deepest dive yet into grandiose, romantic storytelling. “Good night, it’s all tight Jane / I’ll meet you tomorrow night on Lover’s Lane / We may find it out on the street tonight baby / Or we may walk until the daylight maybe,” he sings on “Incident on 57th Street." He was still learning to craft the multi-dimensional characters that would make Born to Run an American classic, but the excitement and musicianship on this record get behind Allmusic’s claim that this is “one of the greatest albums in the history of rock & roll.”

4. The Rising, 2002. After their first tour together since the 1980s (1999-2000), the E Street Band were ready to make another record. They were as unprepared as the rest of the nation was, however, for the tragedy that struck on September 11, 2001. Taking on such a calamity with art, especially one so accessible and accessed as pop music, is a dangerous task. The songs that an aging Springsteen came up with proved as sensitive and savvy as they were moving. And the Boss’s new alliance with producer Brendan O’Brien was the perfect recipe for an up-to-date, multifaceted sonic landscape that did justice to the tangled emotions packed into each song: he drew on accordions, organs, synthesizers, samplers, mandolins, electric guitar pedals, drum machines, horn sections, choirs, and – above all – the signature E Street sound. Springsteen stepped effortlessly into the skin of a grieving spouse on “Lonesome Day” (I still get shivers of sadness when he sings, “That taste don’t easily slip away”); an ill-fated New York City firefighter who, diving into the rubble, finds salvation in his duty on “The Rising” (“Lost track of how far I've gone / How far I've gone, how high I've climbed / On my back's a sixty pound stone / On my shoulder a half mile of line”); and a Muslim in love with a non-believer on “Worlds Apart” (“Down from the mountain road where the highway rolls to dark / 'Neath Allah's blessed rain we remain worlds apart”).

5. Nebraska, 1982. By far his best record without the E Street Band, Nebraska was made mostly at home, on a four-track tape recorder. The recordings were meant to be demos for a full-band album, but the bitter desolation in these songs lent itself to stripped-down presentation; the rough analog tapes bear only acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals. After a light-hearted detour on the rockabilly pop of The River, Springsteen has returned full-on to the characters of Darkness. By now they are desperate, having grappled for years with the Carter/Reagan recession. The album provides some of Springsteen’s most shaking work, as the realization that that “promised land” was just an illusion has become abundantly clear: “Well I’m tired of coming out on this losing end / So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him,” Springsteen admits.

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