One of my favorite days so far this year was the day in May that I got to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. Vicky was unable to come due to a misunderstanding at the hotel with our dog, so I went by myself. Not the ideal situation, but it was the best we could do at the time. I sat next to a couple from New Jersey and a couple from Alabama. We all chatted about college football and where we were from and how many Springsteen concerts we had been to. But there wasn’t any chatting after the music started.
It was the best concert experience I’ve ever had. I wasn’t very close to the stage, but Springsteen and the E Street Band are experts at playing to a crowd. But it’s not just that they put on a good show. It has far more to do with my own personal relationship with his music and getting to spend 3 hours with a huge group of people celebrating everything great about it together.
It’s a shame Vicky couldn’t be there. You should share the things you love. That’s why I do these Career Best posts. I love Bruce Springsteen’s music, and I want to share it with you. Why only 6 albums? I dunno. He has 18 studio albums, so I divided that by 3. You’re getting one third of Springsteen’s entire oeuvre. Enjoy.6. The River (1980): It’s easy to overlook The River, sandwiched between his classic ‘70s albums and his reinventing ‘80s records. But The River was a reinvention of its own, moving away from the wall of sound that characterized Born to Run and Darkness to a style more suitable to Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry. The River truly rocks, with Springsteen hitting his stride on upbeat paeans to young love such as “Fade Away” and “Sherry Darlin”. But, as a double album, The River has more than enough room for somber reflection in songs like “The River” and “Stolen Car”. This was Bruce Springsteen flexing and finding he had room to grow.
5. Born in the U.S.A. (1984): This is when Springsteen “went commercial”, a phrase that is as nasty to Boss purists as “went electric” was at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But it’s hogwash. The vast majority of Born in the U.S.A. is the same roots-driven rock Springsteen was churning out at a professional pace in the decade before Nebraska. There are only a few songs that bear the marks of the ‘80s: “Downbound Train”, which like his typical rock songs in every other way, is layered over subtle synths; “Dancing in the Dark” is Springsteen fully embracing the ‘80s’ worst trends and, in fact, redeeming them; and “I’m on Fire” dives into synth-pop to the point that it becomes a predecessor to shoegaze. No, just because Born in the U.S.A. sold millions of records doesn’t mean Springsteen “went commercial”. He grew into this record, and it caught on at precisely the right time.
4. Nebraska (1982): The opening song of Nebraska is a tune called, fittingly, “Nebraska”, and after the utter bleakness on that track, you’re ready for Dust-Bowl-level sparse on the rest of the album. That isn’t quite the case. There are several songs that have at least a modicum of upbeat in them, like the relatively rollicking “Atlantic City” and the somewhat rocking “Open All Night” and…okay, you’re right. Every song is pretty depressing. But Springsteen reached an authenticity on Nebraska that he’s never since come close to replicating.
3. Wrecking Ball (2012): Arguably the best of the Boss’s later albums. After a slump in the 1990s, Springsteen rediscovered his roots on The Rising and on folk-based albums Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session. Since then, he has not been shy about the causes his albums are stumping for. Magic was an indictment of the Bush era, Working on a Dream was an optimist’s boasting after Obama’s election, and Wrecking Ball is the comedown record set in our economy’s dog years. It’s also the strongest since the ‘80s, mixing every style he’d attempted since The Rising and trying some new things, some of which worked (Irish drinking songs!) and some which didn’t really work at all (Hip-hop!). But he maintains a consistent hopefulness in the face of the economic recession he knew was plaguing his fans, even while encouraging a patented defiance.
2. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): It’s unfair that Darkness had to come after Born to Run. When you come out of the gate at such a lightning-fast pace, it’s going to be hard to maintain. But Springsteen and his E Street Band made up for it by doubling down on their sweeping aesthetic of hard rock mixed with story songs to create what is essentially Born to Run’s sequel and nearly its equal. If it doesn’t reach quite the emotional heights as Born to Run, we can chalk it up to chance. I mean, what are the odds you make two iconic records in a row? As it turned out, in the late 1970s, Springsteen beat the odds.
1. Born to Run (1975): Born to Run isn’t Bruce Springsteen’s debut, but it feels way more like a statement of identity than the two albums before it. Early in his career, Springsteen wrote with a lot of specificity about Jersey, but his songs never made their rough-and-tumble nature seem anything but universal. If falling in love was like “She’s the One” in New Jersey, it was just as raw and potent everywhere else in America. If adolescence was like “Jungleland” in New Jersey, it was just as fraught and melodramatic everywhere else in America. And if the average youth in Jersey can feel as much hope for the future as “Born to Run”, so could the average youth anywhere else in America. Springsteen and the E Street Band took each of their skills to the limit to create that super-Spectorized sound that many have tried to imitate since then, the sound that came to be synonymous with growing up and trying to make good. Springsteen had already made good in 1975, but Born to Run stood for everyone who hadn’t.