CK Retro Review: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 1, 2014
While it’s impossible to overlook the shortcomings of some of the recordings and the lyrical overkill in some of the songs, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is still fantastic in it own way, a sort of outlier representing a road not fully taken by Bruce Springsteen. He quickly realized that, unlike Dylan, with whom he was endlessly compared in 1973 when Greetings was released, he needed to inspire with the heft of the music as much as with the insight of his lyrics. Still, how can you fault an album with several stunning high points where it all came together and with such an abundance of talent on display from the man who created it? Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “Mary Queen Of Arkansas”- Bruce’s handlers wanted him to be a solo folkie in the early days, and you can hear the evidence of what that might have been like in this weird but interesting acoustic number. It was just too quirky for mass consumption really; Cat Stevens wasn’t writing lines like “I’ve been a shine boy for your acid brat and a wharf rat of your state.” “Mary” is a tad too ponderous and overblown, but you can certainly get lost in the wildness of the language.
8. “The Angel”- Springsteen gets every detail just right on this piano-driven ode to a biker. I’m not sure that the character is as fascinating as Bruce thinks he is, making this elegiac piece less affecting that it otherwise might be.
7. “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”- After an evocative piano-and-guitar opening from David Sancious and Springsteen, the music is a bit pedestrian, and the flatline melody doesn’t help matters. The positive is that Bruce’s grasp for street drama was firm enough to overcome such obstacles.
6. “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?”- This has a beguiling Dylanesque torrent of words, creating a rich tableau of fascinating characters in a relatively short time. Sort of a lesser “Blinded By The Light,” but still a lot of fun.
5. “Growin’ Up”- Again, the production is bit problematic after Sancious’ proto-Roy Bittan piano intro, a jumble of indistinguishable instruments all fighting for space. That’s OK, though, because this is Springsteen’s most charming moment on the album, proof that he could use all those lyrical powers to make you feel like that you were just like him (something Dylan could never do, not that I think he ever wanted to.) We could immediately relate to the self-deprecation and foolhardiness of the cat telling this story, and the importance of that in explaining Springsteen’s popularity can’t be overstated.
4. “Blinded By The Light”- The impact of Clarence Clemons on the sound of this song is immediately felt; suddenly, the ensemble, which elsewhere on the album sounds like forgettable bar-banders, settles into the gang-like funkiness that would soon become the routine once they morphed into the E Street Band. His presence also seems to loosen up Springsteen’s vocals, so that even as the multisyllabic words come tumbling out of his mouth at breathless, breakneck speed, he still sounds like a dude on the corner espousing humble pieces of wisdom to his hangers-on.
3. “Spirit In The Night”- A three-piece band, Vini Lopez on drums, Clemons on sax, and Bruce on everything else, effortless conjure the air of alluring mystery that the lyrics detail. Maybe we haven’t all had a night quite as memorable as this one, but we certainly know the feeling of an evening so foolish that its exhilarating. Clarence’s performance is simply fantastic, the arrangement and production is the best on the album, and Bruce acts out the lyrics with just the right mix of skepticism and wonder. Should have been a hit.
2. “For You”- Springsteen rarely wrote about romance in the first decade or so of his career, perhaps because he covered a turbulent relationship so completely in this unheralded stunner. “For You” is part character sketch of the kind of girl who can’t stand prosperity and stability, preferring endless drama and turmoil instead. The narrator knows at this point that, his best efforts wasted, he can no longer ride the rollercoaster with her, but he still wants her to know that he tried. The thrilling musical build-up to the final refrain is an early example of one of those chill-inducing moments that most artists go their whole career without producing; Bruce would create them with regularity in his career due to his combination of talent and a willingness to go for broke within a song.
1. “Lost In The Flood”- At what point does the lovable recklessness displayed in “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit In The Night” transform into something darker? That’s the question lurking in between the lines of this song, with the answer telegraphed by the way David Sancious’ tender piano chords are eventually replaced with macabre organ flourishes. Springsteen’s narrator understands the scenario better than anyone, often inserting himself to warn other characters of the creeping danger. They don’t listen though, falling for the romantic notion that acting out in self-destructive foolhardiness and senseless violence acquires for them control of their destinies or at least a modicum of grace in defeat. An early masterpiece showing Springsteen is just as gripping when he’s being clear-eyed as when he’s throwing benevolent light on his rogues gallery.
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