CK Retro Review: Born To Run by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 7, 2014
The third time for Bruce Springsteen was more than a charm. It was a revelation. Backed into a corner by record sales that failed to live up to the lavish hype surrounding him, Springsteen needed an album that would reach the cheap seats as well as it would attract his growing cult and fawning critics. After the monumental “Born To Run” single promised nothing short of a classic, the 1975 album of the same name delivered that and then some as Springsteen managed to weld some accessible rock thunder onto his sprawling tales of street pathos. This is the album that inspired all the imitators, but you can’t possibly top the original. Here is a song-by-song review.
8. “Night”- While they are definitely a few notches below the songs surrounding them, “Night” and “She’s The One” serve an important purpose on the album, providing breathers for the audience still panting from all of the headier stuff. Otherwise, some critics’ claims that the album is a bit too grandiose for its own good might be more on-point. “Night” is solid lyrically, if a bit redundant, and revs its engines well enough musically. Nothing extra-special, but not chum either.
7. “She’s The One”- The main recommending feature of this track, the thing that sets it above just your typical ode to a transcendent female, is that Bo Diddley with a sledgehammer beat. In fact, the song’s finest moments are the closing ones, as Bruce reduces his lyrics to a series of grunts and groans while the band jerks him in every direction.
6. “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”- As invigorating as it is to hear, there is a lot of defeat to be found on Born To Run. This song provides a little victory, at least for its creator, who emerges from a thoroughfare full of heartache and woe practically born again. And how could he not with the Big Man Clarence Clemons clearing a path? It’s interesting how the definition of a “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” changes as the song progresses. In the beginning of the song, it seems like a Sphinx-like trap for out hero Bad Scooter; at the end, it seems like it’s the rest of the world who wants to join up with his exclusive club, i.e. The E Street Band. As great as some live versions have been over the years, there is no topping the thrilling swagger of the studio take.
5. “Thunder Road”- There’s a reason why this thing has been the source of yearbook quotes for almost forty years now. Springsteen’s endless tinkering with the lyrics created a verbose song where not a word is wasted and every last syllable feels integral. Bittan’s piano opening promises some hope but doesn’t skimp on the melancholy, which makes it the perfect table-setter for the album. As the pace picks up, Springsteen packs every line with evocative imagery and turns of phrase which seem so inevitable that you don’t realize how clever they are. (My personal favorite: “case the promise land”, because what else would interlopers be able to do in a place they don’t belong?) I suppose the rock crunch at the end leads you to believe that Mary gets off that porch and makes that long walk in the end, but this song is ultimately about the dead-end life that sends folks hurtling out onto that dangerous road in the first place.
4. “Meeting Across The River”- There might be a temptation to write this song off because of its relatively short running time and jazzy setting. That would be a mistake, because this track is a miniature masterpiece. The pas de deux between Roy Bittan on piano and Randy Brecker on trumpet conjures the fading light of a back alley or the fading hopes of the doomed. Springsteen’s narrator can’t see that he’s had it, or at least he doesn’t want to admit it lest his partner in small-time crime Eddie not yield that needed ride. The fact that we know how badly this is all going to turn out while the hood promises nothing but sunshine and rainbows is a testament to Springsteen’s songwriting achievement here.
3. “Backstreets”- Any concerns about the credentials of new E Street members Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg were answered here. Bittan’s piano intro is one for the ages, but don’t sleep on how the rhythmic hook he then builds locks into an irresistible pattern with Weinberg’s walloping beat. It’s suitable sturm und drang for the depiction of a youthful friendship lost. And, yes, I said friendship, because no matter what your opinion of Terry’s actual gender, this doesn’t feel like a romantic relationship, even as intense as it is. The narrator’s retrospection isn’t what you’d call nostalgic because he doesn’t sugar-coat the desperation of that “soft infested summer”. Still, when they roamed the “Backstreets,” the pair at least had an identity, which seems preferable to their current state of conformity and routine. Stirring and heartbreaking all at once.
2. “Jungleland”- Springsteen realized that an album so rich and overflowing needed something at the end that upped the ante on everything that came before. “Jungleland” is in many ways the culmination of all the street anthems that he had delivered with regularity on the first three albums; you get the sense that Bruce knew he had to move on from them lest he risk diminishing returns and wanted to send them off properly. Note how brilliantly it is structured: The relatively benign, hopeful beginning with the Rat and the barefoot girl heading into the night; the ripping action of the middle section; and then the painful denouement in which the happy ending, which was always a lie anyway for these characters, is torn away by the overarching malaise that infects the whole scene. The music is right in tune with all these developments, peaking, of course, with Clarence’s mammoth sax solo that delivers all these sad sacks to some far more benevolent place in the night than their fate actually affords them. Good luck at trying not to mist up when you hear that solo; I don’t even fight it anymore.
1. “Born To Run”- You can take it for granted after all these years and all the times you’ve heard it, and I understand that. I just know that I still get the same visceral charge out of it every time it graces my speakers, the same chills when Bruce comes busting out of that crescendo with “Highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.” How he packed such a complete distillation of his go-to into three verses and a bridge is beyond me; it helps that phrases like “sprung from cages” or “The amusement park rises bold and stark” are economically potent poetry. The music could have been an overblown mess, yet it soars and dives in all the right emotional directions, driven by that riff that suggests the unavoidable sadness and triumph of the highway ahead. If you can hear it again with fresh ears, by the time he repeats that refrain for the third time in the closing moments, you realize that there’s a legitimate argument to be made that Springsteen’s effort to write the greatest song in rock and roll history actually came to fruition.
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