After the deaths of longtime E Street Band members of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, it was hard to imagine how Bruce Springsteen would move forward and what that would sound like. 2012’s Wrecking Ball was the answer, a bold, aggressive album featuring an ambitious sound that combined old-timey instruments with forward-looking production techniques. Springsteen found lyrical inspiration in the brazen thievery of large corporations and bad behavior of politicians, sounding a note that was far more confrontational than complaining. Although the album bogs down a bit with the quasi-gospel stuff on the second half of the disc, Wrecking Ball manages to hit the old themes of responsibility, respect, and resiliency with renewed vigor and fire. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “You’ve Got It”- If the song were a knockout, I could accept Bruce trying to shoehorn it into an album where it doesn’t quite fit. But it’s pedestrian at best, so it’s hard to figure what it’s doing here. Were it another artist than Springsteen, I’d say that some meddling record company exec got involved. But it’s not, so this one is head-scratcher.
10. “Rocky Ground”- Springsteen basically takes the chord changes from the Tunnel Of Love gem “One Step Up,” adds a hip-hop flavored rhythm, and, voila, you’ve got a gospel lament. Even with the rap section, this feels like the most tentative move on the album.
9. “This Depression”- This one could have sunk into the same rut as “Rocky Ground,” but it sustains its downcast mood more effectively. For one, Springsteen’s vocal is more stirring for being more restrained. In addition, the recording has a little more life, thanks to Tom Morello’s moaning guitar lead and drums that sound like they were inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.”
8. “Land Of Hope And Dreams”- I know a lot of people love this one, but, to me, it’s always felt like it had to grind to get where it needs to go. Springsteen’s lyrics, while admirable, don’t really transcend like some of his other stuff, while the uplift here seems forced. I will say that this studio version improves matters from previously released live version; it’s a bit looser and more free-flowing. And it was a nice touch to include Clarence’s sax in the mix. Those moments when he blows through the proceedings speak as eloquently here as anything Bruce puts on the page.
7. “Shackled And Drawn”- Some people might have a problem with Springsteen boiling things down to such base terms as he does here, but he’s writing in the voice of a character who would likely see things in such an uncomplicated light. The music is the real star here anyway, a stomping hoedown that captures the indomitable spirit of this down-on-his-luck working man.
6. “Easy Money”- If you can’t beat ‘em,…. The narrator of “Easy Money” doesn’t rend his garments and shout at the heavens about rampant financial inequality. He just straps on his gun, pulls his woman along with him, and hits the town for a little larceny. And the music, a celebratory jig with chanted backing vocals and thunderous instrumental support, makes sure he has fun on his way. The implication is that greed begets greed, until all that’s left of society is a smoldering heap.
5. “We Take Care Of Our Own”- This was just the right tone-setter for the album, a statement of purpose that reestablished Springsteen as a fist-pumping rock and roller. Martial drums, a killer riff, and vocals so intense and focused they can bore a hole in you if you get too close to the speakers: That’s how you do an album-opener and first single. Springsteen’s narrator isn’t so much disillusioned as he is clear-eyed, or, as the man once sang, he has his facts learned. Notice how he repeats the final question “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” America The Beautiful? Not in his depiction. You could hear that title refrain as the empty promises of the powers that be, or you can hear it as Springsteen rallying his listeners to look out for each other because no one else is doing it for them.
4. “We Are Alive”- After so many songs on the album revealed man’s inhumanity to man, the closing track takes the perspective of the ghosts who watch everything going on and have every right to call us to the carpet when we slip up. Taking a Johnny Cash hit and juicing it up with an emotional chorus, Springsteen suggests that the sacrifices made and torment suffered by those who have passed on are somehow dishonored by the messed-up world the living have created. A brilliantly counterintuitive closer which proves that Springsteen’s knack for just the right finishing touch hasn’t diminished a bit.
3. “Death To My Hometown”- Odd how some of the testier narratives are married to music that can be best described as celebratory. It’s as if Springsteen is saying that there is triumph just in identifying these crimes, calling out the perpetrators, and letting them know that we know their true nature and breadth of their insidious behavior. Or maybe in this case, he’s using the music to gird the characters’ loins for the fight they have ahead of them to avenge their town’s demise at the hands of the “robber barons.” The subject matter means that no one need worry that Springsteen has mellowed as he heads to Social Security age, but even more encouraging is that songs like this prove his ability to write and perform inspiringly and insightfully about his anger hasn’t abated.
2. “Jack Of All Trades”- Someone just pointed out to me in an interview that the arpeggio that underpins the entire song reminds them of “O Holy Night.” I had never thought of that, but I think Springsteen definitely knew that the backing would seem benign, all the better to undercut it as the song progressed. The lyrics perform a similar trick, starting out as a kind of resume before emerging as a deeper castigation of the eternal haves and have-nots imbroglio. The narrator’s faith that things will be “all right” transforms from a believable reassurance to empty placation of his beloved. The funereal horns give way to an eerie near-silence as Springsteen delivers this shocker: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” Morello’s final solo tries to clear the air, but once you’ve been reduced to contemplations of violence, nothing could ever be “all right” again.
1. “Wrecking Ball”- When the themes you write about tend to stay consistent from release to release, and the songs are driven by the same kind of integrity each time out, it allows the material to malleably fit into seemingly odd places. So it is that a song written about a football stadium somehow works as the perfect centerpiece for this album of material that would seem to have no surface connection to it. Anyway, the football stadium is a stand-in for all of us, the way we age and are marginalized and eventually get leveled to dust. So do you cower when that implement of destruction comes hurtling toward you? Or do you stick out your chin, puff out your chest, and make sure that infernal thing remembers just whom it faced? There’s no doubt what Springsteen wants us to do.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, and pre-orders are available now.)
I hope everyone had a great long weekend. Here is a bunch of music to get you started for the week.
“Afraid Of Nothing” by Sharon Van Etten: Van Etten’s fascinating new album, Are We There, comes out today. This is the gorgeous, atmospheric opening track, which seems to hang in mid-air without moving, a pretty good match for the relationship the lyrics describe. Van Etten’s voice is just mesmerizing on this track and throughout the album. Check out my review of Are We There at American Songwriter, and check out this lovely track below.
Our Year by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison: This married duo is well-known to country and roots music fans from their solo careers, but their second album-length collaboration, Our Year, arrives today. It’s full of great song choices and effortless harmonies. I reviewed this one as well for American Songwriter, and it’s a nice collection. The title track, a Zombies cover, is the finest track, but I couldn’t find a link. Instead, here’s the duo’s feisty cover of “Harper Valley PTA.”
“Instant Disassembly” by Parquet Courts: They don’t get much buzzier than this band, whose “Stoned And Starving” was ubiquitous a year ago and whose new album Sunbathing Album arrives to great anticipation a week from now. This new single, a great rambler that sounds like an update on Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” should deservedly increase the hype. The lyrics are alternately humorous and heartbreaking, a jaunty guitar riff the narrator’s only friend. Here is the SoundCloud link.
“The English And Western Stallion” by Freeman: In case you don’t recognize the band name, it’s taken from Aaron Freeman, who, once upon a time, was known as Gene Ween from the band Ween. All of that is just trivia; what counts here is the stirring pop on display on this new single, a fantastic melody and crisp arrangement providing some serious catchiness. Freeman self-titled new album doesn’t arrive ’til July, but this is a great way to kick things off.
The Reconsider Me Tout of the Week- Some Fantastic Place by Squeeze: There are a bunch of Squeeze albums that deserve reconsideration, as the band’s popularity, especially in America, never bounced back after unlikely hit single “Hourglass.” I’m fond of this ’93 release, which reunites the core members with Paul Carrack, who sang the classic “Tempted” for the band and sings lead on this album on “Loving You Tonight,” featured in the link below. The songwriting smarts of Chris Tifford and Glenn Tilbrook are undeniable on this album, so check it out if you haven’t already.
(E-mail with your own Touts at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)
I just wanted to wish all my readers a great holiday and let everyone know that I’ll be taking the day off writing today but I’ll back with the continuation of my Springsteen Retro Review series on Thursday. Tuesday Touts coming up tomorrow. Until then, eat a couple hot dogs for me.
I come to praise Working On A Dream, not to bury it. Maybe that makes me a lonely rider in the world of Springsteen analysis, but I love the looseness of this record, which shines through both on the out-there experiments and the more somber songs. The E Street Band sounds fully at home on loving throwbacks to 60’s pop and rock, while Bruce subtly constructs an overriding theme on the autumn years of life and all of the struggles and triumphs that go along with that time period as convincing as the youthful narratives he spun in the early days. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Tomorrow Never Knows”- No, it’s not a Beatles cover, although that psychedelic Revolver tune wouldn’t have totally out of place on this collection. Instead, it’s an acoustic shuffle that’s amiable enough but feels a bit underwritten.
12. “My Lucky Day”- The theme about taking a chance on love is one that’s been said many times before, including a few times by Bruce himself, but the hard-charging music, reminiscent of something that might be heard on The River, is effective. Props to Garry Tallent, who gets a chance to flex his muscles a bit more on this album than usual, for his nimble, melodic bass that propels this one.
11. “Good Eye”- I’m not sure straight blues is a strong point for The E Street Band; the rhythmic chops that they show on their soulful numbers sort of disappears here in favor of a more locked-in approach, to the detriment of the song. Springsteen, on the other hand, proves to be an expert blues belter, muscling out his lines as if trying to exorcise any demons temporarily lodging in his soul.
10. “Life Itself”- Although the whooshing chorus keeps trying to lighten this one up, the darker undercurrents of the verses and the moody music don’t really allow that to happen. The Byrds-like middle section with the backwards guitar is a bit out of left field compared to the rest, but it is intriguing.
9. “What Can Love Do”- Again, it’s a case of downcast verses and an anguished, almost desperate chorus, as Springsteen testifies on the power of love to cure even the worst ills. There is real sting in some of the imagery that Bruce uses in the verses, which makes his promise in the refrain all the more redemptive if he can indeed deliver.
8. “Working On A Dream”- It was probably miscast as the first single, which may be why the album seemed to fade from the public attention span faster than most Bruce releases. It is, however, a simple, affecting paean to resilience, with an Orbisonian tear in Springsteen’s voice that demonstrates just how hard that work can be.
7. “Queen Of The Supermarket”- The production sounds like something that the great songwriter Jimmy Webb might have spun back in the day, while the lyrics have some Randy Newman in them in the way they portray a character who borders on the unsavory as he leers at the checkout girl. It’s a bit wacky, and the f-bomb at the end is an uneasy fit with the orchestration, but there’s an honesty in the writing that sneaks up on you.
6. “Surprise, Surprise”- Some may find this slight, but that’s like saying early Beatles songs are slight. The optimism provides a real jolt, as does the lovely vocal interplay toward the end of the song. (On the whole, Working On A Dream is a treat for lovers of harmonies and sweet vocals.) Not every song has to solve the world’s problems. Some can just project good vibes into a world that needs them, and “Surprise, Surprise” does that better than most.
5. “This Life”- There’s a fine line between homage and copycatting. Springsteen and the band always seem to be on the right side of it on this album. The Pet Sounds open and the “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals near the end pay their respects to The Beach Boys, but it’s just a quick dip in the West Coast pool before we’re back on E Street thanks to Clarence Clemons wonderful solo. The narrator preoccupies himself with the heavens and spectral matters, realizing that there is nothing out there quite like what he’s found on Earth. The immortality mentioned in the bridge certainly seems doable in the midst of those beautiful harmonies.
4. “Outlaw Pete”- (Since I’ve had a lot of commentary in anticipation of this song already, I thought the best way to defend it would be to include the essay that accompanies the song in my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. So here’s an exclusive excerpt solely for my loyal readers.)
Bruce Springsteen made a bold choice by making “Outlaw Pete” the leadoff track for his 2009 album Working on a Dream. It’s rare that an artist as advanced in his career as Springsteen can release a song that genuinely sounds like nothing they have done before, but “Outlaw Pete” manages to be just such an outlier.
Such a drastic departure doesn’t necessarily have to lead to something that’s artistically effective, of course, and it seems that “Outlaw Pete” is a bit of a polarizing song among the rabid Springsteen faithful. Some fans took to derisively labeling it “Out to Pee” for the way that a segment of the crowd would head for the bathrooms whenever the E Street Band trotted it out on the tour supporting Working on a Dream.
If there are fans who have dismissed this fascinating track, they should reconsider. “Outlaw Pete” is full of musical daring, and it works lyrically whether you choose to hear it as a well-told tall tale of a legendary bandit or as a metaphor for the way that the tentacles of the past relentlessly spread into the present and the future.
Springsteen referenced the latter reading in a 2009 interview with Observer Music Monthly. “The past is never the past,” he said. “It is always present. And you better reckon with it in your life and in your daily existence, or it will get you. It will get you really bad. It will come and devour you, it will remove you from the present. It will steal your future and this happens every day.”
That quote shows that Springsteen feels that the old William Faulkner maxim (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) doesn’t quite go far enough to explain the danger of it all. The title character in “Outlaw Pete” is emblematic of this, a man whose attempt to put his heinous past behind him is nothing but a fool’s errand.
The music that accompanies Outlaw Pete on his journey is one of Springsteen’s most ambitious concoctions. It’s a heady combination of Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western ambience and progressive rock drama. The song alternately recalls some of the more ornate productions of Jeff Lynne for ELO and the over-the-top thrills of modern rock adventurers Muse.
If nothing else, the song takes you on a ride, and even if it occasionally makes you queasy, it’s never less than invigorating. There are powerful hooks at every turn, from the elegiac guitars to the darting strings. It’s all very cinematic, which makes sense in a song that plays out like some bizarre Western.
In the early stages of the song, Springsteen describes Pete in such away as to make him seem like the Paul Bunyan of banditry, weaving exaggerated tales of both his criminal behavior as a child and his supernatural defiance of heavenly figures. The tone gets more realistic when Pete gives up his life of crime to settle down with his new wife and child on an Indian reservation. From that point, Springsteen’s tale plays out like a thriller, especially with the introduction of the bounty hunter Dan.
Dan represents the righteous revenge that Pete has coming to him, and even as the bad (or badder) guy wins the showdown, Dan’s dying words ring with icy truth that Pete cannot deny: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done.” So Pete rides off alone and takes a header with his horse off a mountain.
That strange finish is just another one of the daring turns this song takes. It’s as if Springsteen started off writing a John Ford movie and it transformed into one directed by David Lynch. The refrain “Can you hear me?” becomes especially haunting at song’s end, since Pete is now an apparition calling from limbo to warn the living against repeating his mistakes.
Those who feel “Outlaw Pete” is too much of a departure for Springsteen might not be listening closely enough. After all, the street races and gang fights that filled his early narratives were always larger than life; “Outlaw Pete” just offers that grandiosity in a different setting. You could even say that the ambiguous ending, whereby no one can be sure of Pete’s fate, is a throwback to the way that Zero and Blind Terry disappeared into the night way back when.
In any case, Springsteen’s ambition is part of what makes him such an enduring artist. Experimental curve balls like this exciting track are testaments to his refusal to live off past glories. After all, as “Outlaw Pete” clearly shows, a healthy relationship with the past is integral to peace of mind in the present.
3. “The Wrestler”- Springsteen gets so far in the head of Mickey Rourke’s character from the film of the same name that he must have identified with him somewhat. Otherwise this could have been a bloodless, almost anthropological kind of character study. The narrator asks for no forgiveness or sympathy. He doesn’t even try to articulate the insensate urges that push him to choose pain and misery over love and companionship. Still, he takes a strange sense of pride from the fact that his utter self-destruction provides fodder for entertainment, that his fast road to oblivion is a spectacle for those who pay their two bits. Even though it wasn’t written for the album, it fits beautifully as the tack-on track.
2. “The Last Carnival”- Danny Federici got on the traveling circus that is The E Street Band back in 1973. His death in 2008 inspired Springsteen to reach back to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” writing this quasi-sequel as a tribute to his late friend. The basic gist is that the circus continues even as the vast hole left behind by the loss remains, a metaphor that rings true for anyone trying to move on from a devastating loss. Springsteen’s aching vocal is a thing of beauty, the carnival sounds (some conjured by Danny’s son Jason on accordion) haunt the edges of the narrative, and the final wail by the band really reaches you. Springsteen could have said goodbye any old way, but he really honors Federici with the ingenuity and heart behind this track.
1. “Kingdom Of Days”- A majestic love song, one of the best Springsteen has ever written, “Kingdom Of Days” speaks of a romance that still burns with the force of young love, even if it’s about two folks closer to senior citizen status than senior year. On other songs on the album, time ravages, sneers, and avenges. The couple in this song conquer time by coming to terms with it, robbing it of its power to harm. The chorus is simply beautiful, with the strings and horns providing the fanfare and the heavenly harmonies providing the heart. “We’ll laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays” might be, in its way, one of the most romantic things the man has ever written, and you can take that to the bank, Baby Blue.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)
Here we go again with another round of touts, including a couple of great new albums just released.
Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst: Check out the American Songwriter site for my four-star review of this excellent new album out today. Suffice it to say that this is Oberst at his best, feeling everything a little bit too much, pulling no punches on the state of the world and all the people therein, yet providing a little catharsis for us all with his powerful rants. Plus, the music is as focused and catchy as anything he’s ever released. Check out the gorgeous opening track, “Time Forgot,” below, and then look up the whole album.
“When The Crowd Cheers” by The Roots: This first single from their new album And Then You Shoot Your Cousin features a haunting piano figure that keeps trickling around Questlove’s insistent beat, while the verses from Greg Porn and Black Thought toy with rap cliches only to reveal the flawed humanity of the protagonists. It all leads up to a chorus that sounds like one that little girls might sing while skipping rope until you consider the implications of the lyrics. Great stuff, and a great video you can check out below.
“Luv Hold Me Down” by Drowners: The fact that this band is made up of New Yorkers along with a Welsh-born frontman should tell you a little bit about their sound. There’s a lot of first-album Strokes in their guitar approach. But the tunefulness is a little more light-footed and European. Anyway, it all comes together on this insanely catchy single, which appears on their self-titled album that came out in January. The YouTube link is below.
“Every Time I Fall In Love” by Clare Bowen: I admit I bailed out on season 2 of Nashville; I got lot a little bored with the soap opera stuff and the DVR is overloaded as it is. Then I heard this song by chance, and I remembered why I watched in the first place: The music. Bowen sings the heck out of this exquisitely-written heartbreak ballad. Now they’ve got me again; looks like I’ll be searching out the episodes I missed before Season 3.
The Reconsider Me Tout of the Week- On The Border by The Eagles: I know what you’re thinking. The Eagles have sold a gajillion records; why do we need to reconsider anything of theirs? I feel like this album gets lost a bit in the band’s catalog between the hit-laden early years and the Hotel California peak. For my money, this 1974 release has the best non-single material of any of their albums, including the sarcastically funky title track, a gorgeous take on Tom Waits’ “Ol ’55”, and, the best Eagles song you’ve never heard, “My Man”, where former member Bernie Leadon movingly eulogizes Gram Parsons. Check the latter song out in the link below, and them move on to the entire album.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online booksellers.)
It’s probably too simplistic to say that Magic, released in 2007, was Bruce Springsteen’s best album since Tunnel Of Love, simply because the many stylistic turns he took in the 20 years interim make it a little like comparing rocking apples to folky oranges. What can be said is that it’s the most overt throwback to the classic E Street Band sound, toughened by lyrics that shunned nostalgia for a clear-eyed look at sleight of hand, perpetrated either on a nationwide scale or just between two people, and its insidious effects. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “I’ll Work For Your Love”- The bad: Tortured metaphors and similes in the verses and a too-blunt arrangement. The good: Excellent refrain and a classic Roy Bittan piano intro. The good wins out by a few lengths, and the fact that this is the weakest thing here should tell you how strong Magic is as a whole.
11. “Gypsy Biker”- There are obvious similarities here to songs like “Born In The U.S.A.” and “Shut Out The Light”, but the difference here is that the focus is on the devastation on all those left behind when a loved one or town citizen doesn’t make it back home, either literally or mentally, from a war. Some lonesome harmonica is the most memorable part of the otherwise routine instrumental backing.
10. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down”- It’s rare to see Springsteen get as snippy as he does here to the person he’s addressing in a song, which is why you could conceivably read the “pretty face” in this song to be some larger target (maybe a politician) than just a girl living on borrowed time in the limelight. It comes off like a nastier “When You’re Alone.” Steven Van Zandt delivers some skyscraping harmonies which lend to the 60’s feel.
9. “Last To Die”- Springsteen often talks about how he likes to mix the personal and political in his material, but he goes down that road to a fault here. Instead of deepening the meaning, he muddles what could have been a more focused meditation on a fading romance with current events references. Nonetheless, the minor-key power of the music is undeniable, allowing you to forgive the lyrical confusion.
8. “Long Way Home”- I would have preferred this one to stay as stark as it is in the beginning, the open spaces in the music conjuring the distance between ideals and reality, a distance that haunts the lonely narrator. I also liken this one to “Land Of Hope And Dreams” in that they both feel too consciously anthemic, like you can hear the work put in to get them there. I always prefer my Springsteen, and music in general, to sound like it was effortless. You can’t argue with the song’s sentiment though, that the thousand tiny betrayals that we endure on micro and macro levels can really put us asunder, far from any place of comfort or reason.
7. “Magic”- You can pick whoever your own personal boogeyman might be and imagine the narrator in that way. Springsteen probably is frying some big fish with his metaphor, artfully sustained, that equates large-scale lying with the fakery of a small-time magician. “I’ll cut you in half,” Springsteen sings, “While you’re smiling ear to ear.” By the end, there are bodies in the trees and fire rampaging close by. It’s a downright chilling story, not exactly a pick-me-up, but certainly worthy of being told.
6. “Devil’s Arcade”- If I had a nit to pick with this song, it’s how Springsteen is maybe a bit too fussy in holding back the meat and potatoes of the story. The tale of a soldier whose body, and possibly his mind, is broken and the woman who prays for some semblance of normality for him should probably just be told, not hinted at. The song is still quite stirring though, from the somber cello at the start to the passionate refrain of “The beat of your heart,” the woman repeating it over and over as if she’s willing it to continue.
5. “Livin’ In The Future”- The music is such a throwback to classic days that, had another band perpetrated it, they could have been accused of plagiarism. Springsteen knows the strutting rhythm and Clarence Clemons air-splitting sax would have that effect, all the better to then undercut everyone with a tale that deftly mixes personal defeat with overarching chaos. The chorus suggests a kind of mind trick to try to get through it all; might as well put your mind on E Street while everything else goes all to hell. Enjoyable subversion from the Boss.
4. “Terry’s Song”- What comes through the most in this workmanlike tribute is the genuine affection Springsteen clearly had for his late friend Terry Magovern. He doesn’t try to canonize him. He just reveals his humanity, flaws and all, and how that humanity made him unique from the rest of humanity, if that makes any sense. I’ll take this over a windy old eulogy any day.
3. “Radio Nowhere”- This is one example where Brendan O’Brien’s occasional tendency to make his productions a bit too thick and airless actually pays off, because it plays into the narrator’s desperate pleas for human contact amidst the density and noise. Springsteen’s exhortations work as a complaint about the lack of human connection in the modern world, or they work as a guy belly-aching about the lousy music (or lack of music) on his local radio station. Speaking of radio, maybe Tommy Tutone snuck into Bruce’s subconscious somewhere along the line in the 80’s, because he regurgitates that one-hot wonder’s riff, albeit with a whole lot more spit and vinegar. This is as fierce as he and the band has ever sounded.
2. “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”- What if one of Springsteen’s charming young heroes from the early streetlife serenades never left the boulevard? Would he still be charming? Or maybe a little pathetic? Those are the questions that loom over this gorgeous slice of 60’s-inspired pop, all yearning violins and familiar yet poignant chord changes. By the way, I think pathetic might be too harsh, because there is something endearing in his willingness to dust himself off after what is probably his umpteenth broken heart. “Love’s a fool’s dance,” Bruce sings. “I ain’t got much sense/But I still got my feet.” Those lines form a universal sentiment, so if he’s a loser, then we’re all losers right along with him.
1. “Your Own Worst Enemy”- Since we’re following throughlines in Springsteen’s career, here is the same dude from “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” remarried with children, tamping down his self-destructive urges as you would an overstuffed garbage can, until it gets to be too much and all that filth oozes out. And we present his tale in a chiming, baroque pop arrangement that sounds like Jeff Lynne producing The Left Banke. It shouldn’t work, but the incisive characterization in such short potent strokes, combines with the irresistible music, makes this one of the most underrated tracks in the man’s career.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online booksellers.)
A left-field project that’s gets a lot of mileage from the sheer enjoyment and passion of the players, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome featured Bruce Springsteen’s first ever studio foray into cover songs, in this case folk songs and spirituals that were performed by Pete Seeger. Springsteen gets to showcase his skills as an interpreter, but the success of the album rides largely on the big-band arrangements, many of which capture the nuance and power of these deceptively profound songs. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Jacob’s Ladder”- With the exception of a neat little intro that sounds like it was borrowed from The Band circa ’70, this one never quite takes off into the heavens like it’s meant to do.
12. “My Oklahoma Home”- Maybe this is just personal preference, but I consider Springsteen’s voice in full-throated, soulful mode to be much more aesthetically pleasing than when he lays on a thick accent. Maybe he nails an Oklahoma twang; I haven’t been to Norman lately. But the bottom line is it gets a tad comical by the end of this thing, which probably isn’t what he’s going for.
11. “Pay Me My Money Down”- The arrangement is maybe a tad too busy here, but you can certainly tell that Springsteen identified with the righteous anger of the wronged working man telling the story. In fact, it’s not too big a leap from a song like this to several Bruce himself would write on Wrecking Ball.
10. “Erie Canal”- I’m not sure the sober reading given quite matches the tone of the story of man and mule. But it’s hard deny the prettiness of the melody and the music surrounding it.
9. “John Henry”- Springsteen lays the accent on a bit thick here as well. Still, this tale of man’s unbeatable spirit works, especially with nice accordion and violin touches spicing up the instrumental breaks.
8. “Froggie Went A Courtin'”- Good choice to end things on a light-hearted note, just like Dylan did with this song on Good As I Been To You. Springsteen locates some tenderness in there somehow, which surprised me as someone who’s known this song since seeing it on an old Tom & Jerry cartoon as a tyke.
7. “Jesse James”- Bruce sings like this one like a grizzled old barfly telling the tale to some newcomer who might have other ideas about the legendary outlaw. The left-right rhythm gets a tad tiresome after a while, but the refrain carries the day.
6. “We Shall Overcome”- What a wonder of a song, how the melody’s sadder turns hints at just how hard a struggle must be endured before the refrain’s promise takes hold. Bruce doesn’t do anything new with it, but that’s probably the right tactic. You don’t want to mess with something like this.
5. “Old Dan Tucker”- The band has enough room to breathe here, each instrument filling out its space in vibrant fashion. Banjoist Mark Clifford brings the old-time religion, while Springsteen has a blast hollering out the square dance calls. Great fun from start to finish.
4. “Eyes On The Prize”- Wisely underplayed vocals by Springsteen allow the haunting melody to take its hold. It also throws the spotlight on the brooding, creeping quality of the music, which suggests just how hard it is to “Hold on” when circumstances and obstacles keep trying to shake you off into oblivion.
3. “Mrs. McGrath”- “All foreign wars do I proclaim/Live on blood and a mother’s pain.” Sounds like a couplet Bruce might have written himself, right? So you can see why he sinks his teeth into this Irish anti-war ballad, violins accompanying him for the melancholy ride that grows in heartbreaking potency as it progresses.
2. “Shenandoah”- Let’s face it: It’s darn near to impossible to screw this one up if you just stick to that achingly beautiful melody. Springsteen, behind a cinematic arrangement that conjures majesty and melancholy, does just that.
1. “O Mary Don’t You Weep”- On paper, you would think a Negro spiritual might be one to trip this assemblage up. Instead, an inspired arrangement, which recalls at times a bigger-band version of something you might have heard back on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and Springsteen and the backing vocalists’ impassioned chants make this one the ultimate keeper from the album. Listen to how the music fills up and then drops away at key portions. Springsteen, like on so many of his rock songs, uses this push and pull between intimate moments and cathartic crescendos to drain every last ounce of emotion from the song.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online bookselling sites.)
Here’s another quintet of Touts for your perusal.
“Still Knocking At The Door” by Papercuts: Melancholy psychedelia never goes out of style, does it? From The Beatles, Procol Harum, and onward, minor-key chords, strings, and spaced-out melodies have proved pretty durable, and this San Francisco collective led by Jason Quever gets it just right on this beauty of a single. Makes me want to check out their new album Life Among The Savages, available now.
“100 Different Ways Of Being Alone” by Bettysoo: Someone should let Paul Simon know that there are more ways of being alone than getting there. Bettysoo is coming off a pretty lengthy hiatus since her last album, but she sure doesn’t sound rusty on this sumptuous folk-pop groover. Her new album, When We’re Gone arrives on May 27, but you can check out this track via CMTEdge.com in the link below.
“Goshen ’97” by Strand Of Oaks: This pounding country-rocker reminds me of some of the classic hits of .38 Special. Alt-rock legend J. Mascis chips in on guitar, joining Strand Of Oaks frontman Tim Showalter for a furious assault that gets in and out in three minutes and leaves you wanting more. That’s quite the tease for the upcoming album Heal, out in June. The YouTube link is below.
All Or Nothin’ by Nikki Lane: Sometimes artists that are heavily hyped fail to deliver on that promise on record. Nikki Lane’s new album, her second, doesn’t fall into that trap. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach helps out with production that suits Lane’s sassy delivery. She shows throughout the album that she’s a multifaceted artist, capable of handling blues, rockers, and weepers with equal aplomb. The title track for the album, out now, is in the link.
The Reconsider Me Tout of the Week- Change Everything by Del Amitri: Most Americans know this Scottish band from their peppy ’95 hit “Roll To Me.” But Change Everything, from 1992, bucked the grunge trend with bittersweet melodies and open-hearted lyrics from frontman Justin Currie. Check out the shoulda-been-a-hit ballad “Be My Downfall”, and then go find this album post-haste.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on @Twitter to suggest some Touts of your own. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order now.)
When some worthy songs started to pile up in the vaults back in 2005, Springsteen decided to do some housecleaning and give them a proper release. After a few new tracks were added, Devils & Dust was born, an intriguing collection of story songs and confessionals that brim with humanity and insight, if not always a lot of excitement. Those looking for a coherent album-length statement should look elsewhere, but cherry-pickers are bound to find something they’ll like a lot in this diverse group. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Silver Palomino”- The lyrics are actually quite pretty, even touching. I just wish they were delivered somewhat differently; Springsteen kind of growls them out, robbing the story of much of its tenderness.
11. “All The Way Home”- Written originally for Southside Johnny, Springsteen took this song back and rearranged it, though probably not for the better. Outside of some nice harmonica work from Bruce, the track is plodding and tuneless, while the lyrics are just a lesser rehash of the same themes found on “Tougher Than The Rest.”
10. “Maria’s Bed”- Nothing new here either in terms of subject matter: A hard-living dude finds passion and redemption in the arms of an alluring woman. Soosie Tyrell’s violin gives some extra flavor to an interesting shape-shifting arrangement that makes this one a nice diversion.
9. “All I’m Thinkin’ About”- Well, if it isn’t Smokey Springsteen. That falsetto alone makes this one worthwhile. I honestly don’t even pay too much attention to the lyrics, because that unorthodox vocal garners all my attention. Who knew Bruce had it in him?
8. “Long Time Comin”- Springsteen often gets incorrectly labeled as one of the progenitors of the loose sub-genre of music known as “heartland” rock. I’m not sure he ever fit that grouping well, but this song, with Bruce’s snarled vocals and sing-along chorus located amidst churning guitars, certainly does. And that’s fine, especially when Springsteen spices it up with telling details like when the narrator describes his estranged father as ” just somebody, somebody I’d see around.”
7. “Black Cowboys”- This one sounds like it easily would have fit in on The Ghost Of Tom Joad, although it’s more character-driven than issue-driven. Some of the descriptions of the neighborhood Rainey Williams inhabits really drive home the long odds he faces, such as when Springsteen sings, “he ran past melted candles and flower wreaths” as part of his everyday play. Bruce sings the whole thing dispassionately, which is also wise, lest he tip the story into melodrama. The melody is a bit of a flat-line, which was probably unavoidable with such detailed lyrics, but the song as a whole grows on you with repeated listens.
6. “Reno”- Hey now! By far the most graphic song Springsteen has ever recorded, this tale, on its surface, is about a rendezvous with a prostitute. Dig deeper and you’ll find a man trying to chase away the ghost of the true love that he squandered. The closing punchline (“It wasn’t the best I ever had/Not even close”) lets us know that his heart stayed behind with this former flame even if other parts of him have clearly moved on.
5. “Matamoras Banks”- I’m not sure the technique of telling the story in reverse, from the immigrant’s death back to when he tries to cross the border, is anything more than distracting. Yet that small quibble is overcome by the potency of the imagery and the unfussy beauty of the refrain, which will break you heart a little every time Bruce returns to it.
4. “Leah”- If there is a complaint that I have with a lot of Devils & Dust, it’s that at times Springsteen’s lyrics are almost too intricate and detailed, with descriptions that put too fine a point on everything. “Leah” skirts those problems for the most part, as Bruce uses clean, direct language to express this narrator’s hopes and desires. The melody is also a bit more elastic than some of the other tracks, while Mark Pender’s trumpet part is just the right embellishing touch. The whole thing just seems effortless and relaxed, which is ultimately what recommends it over some of the more ambitious songs here.
3. “Jesus Was An Only Son”- We aren’t conditioned to think of Jesus Christ as a living, breathing person who was someone’s son and had the same kind of fears and doubts as we all do. Springsteen’s song, which benefits from a clean, tender arrangement (with Bruce on every instrument) that spotlights the pretty melody, takes that somewhat novel approach and manages to reveal the human within the divine and vice-versa. Well-crafted and subtly stirring.
2. “The Hitter”- Again, there’s not much of a melody, but that’s more forgivable here considering the standout quality of the lyrics. Those moaning backing vocals also add the right touch of emotion to the deadpan of the narrative. Throughout his career, Springsteen has embodied characters who would rather endanger themselves to feel alive rather than quietly die a little every day; this guy may be the result of that ethos carried too far. But the scenes with his mother, icy and unsentimental, make it clear where these self-destructive tendencies originate. The closing shipyard brawl is a shiver-inducing ending to an expertly-rendered character sketch.
1. “Devils & Dust”- When Springsteen attempted to introduce hip-hop inspired beats on “The Fuse”, it sounded tentative if intriguing. He dives in much deeper on this inventive and moving recording, mixing his folky melody with those modern sensibilities seamlessly. The vibrancy of the music is contrasted with the hard questions asked by the lonely soldier. We always talk about those who are killed in wars, but what about the after-effects on those who do the killing? The key line here is “But I don’t know who to trust”; it’s Springsteen’s way of questioning the impetus for any war, let alone the foggy motivations for the war in Iraq which serves as the backdrop here. Proof that protest music is always at its best when human stories are at the forefront.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online booksellers.)
Maybe Bruce Springsteen was trying to do too much with 2002’s The Rising. Not only was he reuniting the E Street Band while indoctrinating a new producer (Brendan O’Brien), but he was also, in several songs, attempting to make sense of the myriad tragedies of 9/11. Plus, he overstuffed the album with 15 songs when a lean, mean ten would have sufficed. While there are a few undeniable triumphs, The Rising feels now like it was a tad overrated at the time by folks both happy to have the band back together and grateful that Bruce took on such difficult subject matter with courage and abandon. Here is a song-by-song review.
15. “Mary’s Place”- I get was Springsteen was trying to do here, but the whole thing seems misguided. The music is the wrong tone for the lyrics, or maybe vice-versa, and anyway, neither the lyrics or the music are that memorable on their own. Bruce also seems strangely restrained on the vocals, as if he’s tiptoeing through a sensitive area. Maybe it works live (I’m dubious of that as well), but it’s a long, bumpy ride in the studio version.
14. “Countin’ On A Miracle”- This one is too busy by half. The shy acoustic opening and “Eleanor Rigby” bridge seem to be wedged from two completely different songs into this thudding rocker. The fairy-tale metaphor has been done before, although Bruce nearly gets this thing aloft toward the end with a rousing section featuring simple, repetitive, potent phrases, a technique used throughout the album.
13. “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”- Don’t try to make a 9/11 connection here; the song isn’t weighty enough to sustain it. Better to just enjoy this one as a fun-loving, 60’s flavored lark and focus on Clarence Clemons soaring solo than try to hang any heavy connotations on it.
12. “The Fuse”- The title is appropriate, because Springsteen appears to be trying to fuse together about six different topics in his imagistic lyrics. Coherence may suffer but it’s still an interesting effort, especially when you combine it with the hip-hop stutter beat and the funky sonics. For a guy who can easily rest on his significant laurels anytime, such experiments are always noteworthy.
11. “Worlds Apart”- I actually would have preferred the Middle Eastern accents to stay at the forefront for the duration of the song; the heavy guitars bludgeon the nuance out of the melody. Springsteen’s lyrics labor a bit at the start but pick up momentum, eventually making salient points about the pointlessness of a cultural divide.
10. “Further On (Up The Road)”- It’s always hard to assign blame to a producer, especially when you’ve got an artist as clear about what he wants as Springsteen. I feel like O’Brien really improved with each outing, which is another way of saying that The Rising was his weakest production with Bruce. Things get a tad claustrophobic on the up-tempo numbers, and this bluesy offering is hampered by this malady. It still prevails though on the sheer focus and force of Bruce’s performance.
9. “Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin)”- A lot of The Rising seems tight, even on songs when there’s supposed to be a lighter touch. This track revels in a winning loosesness, the one groove on the album that doesn’t feel like its being played through gritted teeth. Sounds like it could have been on The River.
8. “Empty Sky”- The line “I want an eye for an eye” was an honest expression of the urge for revenge that hung heavy in the air after 9/11. Springsteen’s mournful harmonica fill says as much if not more than the lyrics do about the bottomless sorrow of those who lost loved ones on that fateful day.
7. “Lonesome Day”- The strings are utilized for power here rather than tenderness, which gives this song, and the album, a nice kick-start. As for the lyrics, they sort of veer in unwieldy directions from the initial theme of a guy betrayed by his lover; maybe this is one where the degree of difficulty didn’t need to be so high. It’s still stirring though as long as you don’t try to tie all the loose ends together.
6. “The Rising”- It’s a beloved song, I know, but I don’t feel that it ever quite delivers the payoff, always promising some kind of catharsis that never quite comes. The music is the big problem here, a bit cumbersome and labored, failing to do justice to Springsteen’s solid melody. It comes closest to getting there in the “Sky of…” section, which lets the music fall away and Bruce muscle the emotions home. Still, the fact that Springsteen can inhabit the role of a firefighter meeting his fate and make it seem somehow uplifting without skimping on the devastation of the loss is an outstanding achievement.
5. “Nothing Man”- Throughout this album, the gentler offerings registers as the most potent. Springsteen’s tale is just vague enough to suggest all kinds of outcomes for the protagonist but detailed enough to ground him and make him relatable. Whatever has befallen this fellow, it’s clear that he can’t carry on with the same routine that everyone else seems to enjoy, clinging to the gun on his nightstand rather to any sort of human companionship and comfort. It’s one of the odd things about The Rising that the songs written before 9/11 tend to capture the emotions and lingering effects of that day better than the ones written specifically in response to that event; “Nothing Man is a prime example of this phenomenon.
4. “Paradise”- The quiet guitar and gentle atmospherics make for one of the better productions on the album, just right for a song that suggests the themes of distance and loss. Without getting too specific, Springsteen embodies several different characters in the tragic play that unfolded before our eyes both leading up to and in the wake of 9/11, even daring to humanize a suicide bomber. The details sort of fade as the song progresses, causing the whole thing to sort of drift away into the ether, which somehow feels right.
3. “Into The Fire”- This is the song that works the best out of those written directly in response to 9/11. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but there’s something about the simplicity and directness of that refrain, a plea and a prayer wrapped up in one, that is inherently moving. It’s as if the enormity and complexity of that time destroyed any chance for an intricate dissection. Better to keep it unbothered by all the finer points of the topic and go straight for the heart, especially when you’ve got buoyant music behind you like this one does.
2. “You’re Missing”- Whether it was O’Brien’s influence or something else, there’s no denying that The Rising features some serious departures for Springsteen. This string-laden ballad is one of them, and he gets it just right. The premise of the song: How do you appropriate some sort of normality when the person who meant the most to you is gone? And should you even try? That cello seems to be prying into that household, trying to find those answers. Only Danny Federici’s perfectly-pitched organ break at the end offers any kind of release, a kind of laugh-so-you-don’t-cry finish to one of the prettiest songs Springsteen has ever released.
1. “My City Of Ruins”- Originally written about Asbury Park, Springsteen found a home for it as the album closer, where it contrasted its stories about defeat and general degradation with a poignant message about resiliency. In much the same way, the music is balanced between the dejected, descending bass line in the verses and the ever-elevating “Rise up” chorus. Springsteen’s lyrics are wonderfully descriptive (“Young men on the corner like scattered leaves” is just a killer line). The gospel uplift here is reached effortlessly, and when that refrain keeps building in the final moments, with Max Weinberg trying to bust up the dense fog of lingering sadness and Springsteen and his backing singers pushing on the clouds from below, you’ll likely feel the light beaming down on your face even if you’re listening with a roof over your head.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, and you can pre-order it now.)