Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Bruce Springsteen recently released The Promise, a box set collection of The Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions. Darkness was his fourth album and the first after Born To Run the recording that catapulted him into a major figure in the rock world. The Promise box set has added 21 new songs plus remasters of the original ten that came out on Darkness. The new songs include Because The Night that was recorded by Patti Smith on her Easter album. There are also alternate takes of Racing In The Street,  Candy's Room (Candy's Boy), and Factory (Come On), that have different arrangements and lyrics. Also in the box set are several live performance and studio archived DVDs and amazing packaging that is an exact replica of Springsteen's notebook from the era. This includes lyrics and alternate lyrics, influential songs by other artists, and photographs and contact sheets from that period.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town came out in 1978, three years after Born To Run and after various legal hassles where Springsteen took control of his own work. In the sessions they recorded around 70 songs. Springsteen wanted a dark focused vision where all of the songs worked together to present a cast of characters who were on the edge. They had very little and were in danger of losing that. Their only hope for redemption was in working harder and their escape came behind the wheel. The musical style remained grand with powerful drums and searing guitar solos. Darkness wasn't as highly produced as Born To Run, but still had a full bodied sound. Springsteen's conviction in his singing adds weight to the songs. There are some great tunes on The Promise, but many of the songs would not work in the final vision of what the album became. In the end Darkness On The Edge Of Town was edited down to ten songs that are dark, serious, and intense, and have a powerful emotional impact.

Bruce Springsteen came onto the scene in 1973 with the release of Greetings From Asbury Park. It was in the tradition of Bob Dylan, folk-based tunes arranged for an electric band featuring piano, organ, and 50s style saxaphone breaks, topped with acoustic guitar and Springsteen's voice singing lyrics of detailed imagery. His street scene could be haunted and tragic as on Lost In The Flood or full of romanticism and youthful energy as on Spirit In The NIght. 

Later that year he brought out his second album The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. It was an ambitious project that expanded Springsteen's sound into jazz and other elements. It was the realization of Springsteen's poetic vision that would soon be tarnished by disillusionment. The album creates a street-life mosaic of working class society that synthesizes popular musical styles into complicated, well executed arrangements. The songs become cinematic (especially Rosalita) and point to what would come with Born To Run.

Born To Run exploded in 1975 and took a sonic leap from his first two records. The band changed with the two virtuoso players, keyboardist David Sancious, and drummer Vini Lopez being replaced by the professional and less flashy Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg. The songs were sweeping and dramatic. The album was full and highly produced with layers of guitar, layers of echo on the vocals, lots of keyboards, and thunderous drums. Springsteen was saying goodbye to his romantic vision of his teenaged street life and a darker, more bitter vision was setting in. Thunder Road, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Born To Run, She's The One, and Jungleland present a powerful, grand, and exalting musical work.

Springsteen took a different direction with Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It had the power of Born To Run, but the songs were stripped down and bleaker. The darkness and bitterness of Punk Rock had an influence on him. He combined this with his own stories of those who are struggling to survive. The album starts off with Badlands which was inspired by the film of the same name by Terence Malick and refers to a rocky desolate area in South Dakota. Adam Raised A Cain is short, intense, and angry. Some hope is expressed with the uplifting The Promised Land. Factory is a ballad about the hard life and dignity of the working man. The title cut ends the album and expresses an emotional climax to a great album.

In 1980, Springsteen released The River, a double album of 20 songs. It follows up the themes of Darkness with wide-screen mid-tempo rock and stories of conflict and disillusionment. The song The River, Independence Day, and Point Blank present a world-view that is dire, but less judgemental. Springsteen now sees romance as a possible escape. There are also more lighthearted pop/rock shorter songs on The River that are influenced by mid-60s music.  These  include songs like Hungry Heart, Sherry Darling, and Out In The Street. Springsteen decided to include these tunes on this album as a counterpoint and to create a more eclectic sound as opposed to the tight edit he had on Darkness. The second side contains three moody ballads - Stolen Car, Drive All Night, and Wreck On The Highway -  that are imbued with a sense of hopelessness and anticipate the next record Nebraska.

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen decided to release the demo versions of his latest songs, recorded with only acoustic guitar or electric guitar, harmonica, and vocals. His storytelling had become richer and over time Springsteen's songs had become darker and more pessimistic, but those on Nebraska would be his bleakest ever. The title track is a first-person account of the killing spree of the murderer Charles Starkweather. This set the tone for a series of portraits of small-time criminals and desperate characters. Nebraska was a risky, challenging album, that opened up another and different direction for the music of Bruce Springsteen.

In 1984, a new phase in Springsteen's career started with the release of Born In The USA. He became a huge commercial success and rock star. The content still dealt with the same struggles, but the sound changed to a more polished production with galloping rhythms and chiming guitars. The title track was co-opted by the election campaign of Ronald Reagan. The verses described the disenfranchisement of a lower-class Vietnam vet, and the chorus was intended to be angry but came off like an anthem causing it to be misunderstood. Springsteen had softened his message with nostalgia and sentimentality. There are good songs on Born In The USA, but for me the production has a dated 80s sound with the keyboards dominating making it one of my least favorite albums by him. 

Springsteen had earned a reputation as a great live performer and in 1986 he released Live 1975-1985, a mammoth five cd box set with performances of many of his greatest songs, some which didn't appear on any of his studio albums.

He then followed up in the next few years with Tunnel of Love, Lucky Town, and Human Touch which in my opinion are not as strong as the earlier albums, but do contain some good songs. I do love the songs Souls of The Departed, Human Touch, and Tunnel of Love. Also, in this period The Streets of Philadelphia, Secret Garden, Murder Incorporated, and This Hard Land were released on the Greatest Hits album.

In 1995, The Ghost of Tom Joad was released. The album was mostly a solo effort by Springsteen in the vein of Nebraska. The album depicted how Americans had gotten better at ignoring the divide between the rich and the poor. The album is very low key and more overtly political than Nebraska. The songs contain an undertow of bitterness as they depict an America that has turned its back on the working class and the foreign-born. There is also a compassion in songs like The Line, Sinaloa Cowboys, and Balboa Park. Two of my favorite Springsteen songs come from this album - Youngstown and The Ghost of Tom Joad.

The box set Tracks was released in 1998 containing numerous outtakes from Springsteen's career, including The Fever and a great acoustic version of Born In The USA.

As the new century came in, Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band and created an excellent live album - Live In New York City - that was released in 2001. It contained beautiful versions of Atlantic City, Mansion On The Hill, The River, Youngstown, and If I Should Fall Behind. There are also killer versions of Prove It All Night, Murder Incorporated, Badlands, Born To Run, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, and Jungleland. There is also the emotionally moving song American Skin, that tells the story of the unarmed Amadou Diallo who was cut down by 41 shots by the NYPD in The Bronx.

This started a highly productive period for Springsteen in the 2000s where he produced many recordings and played live throughout the decade, solidfiying his place in rock history. The studio albums included The Rising which was his response to 911, Magic, and Working On A Dream, all with the E Street Band. He also produced another acoustic album Devils and Dust. In 2006, he made the album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions that consisted of folk tunes popularized by Pete Seeger. He rounded up 13 musicians and recorded the album quickly without much rehearsal giving the work a rowdy, rambling, and live feel. A live album - Live In Dublin featuring many of these songs plus some other Springsteen compositions came out in 2007.

In 2006, a great live album of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1975 was released. It was right after Born To Run and has amazing versions of a lot of the songs from that album, plus pieces from the first two albums including a knockout 17 minute version of Kitty's Back and Detroit Medley.

In 2008, an EP called Magic Tour Highlights came out that had audio and video versions of four songs from the concerts of that year. Springsteen does Always A Friend with Alejandro Escovedo, a cover of The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! with Roger McGuinn, and 4th of July, Asbury Park where the video is a tribute to the recently deceased Danny Federici. It also has my favorite song and video by Bruce Springsteen. The Ghost of Tom Joad is performed by Bruce, the band, and Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. It is an electric version where Bruce and Tom share the vocals and play some amazing electric guitar. The performance soars and is the perfect example of how powerful, thought provoking, and moving Bruce Springsteen's music can be.

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