FEATURE: The Boss at Seventy: Seven Essential Bruce Springsteen Albums



The Boss at Seventy


IN THIS PHOTO: Bruce Springsteen captured in 1982/PHOTO CREDIT: Frank Stefanko 

Seven Essential Bruce Springsteen Albums


THERE are two big anniversaries happening…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Bruce Springsteen in 2019 in a promotional shot for Western Stars/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

later this month. On 26th September, it will be fifty years since The Beatles’ Abbey Road was released to the world. I am really looking forward to that because, not only do we get to revel in this wonderful album, but Sirs Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr will be around to share their memories of Abbey Road. Three days before that happens, Bruce Springsteen turns seventy! The Boss’ seventieth should be celebrated and it will provide us an opportunity to look back at his incredible music and see why he is so iconic (also, if you have not seen the Bruce Springsteen-inspired film, Blinded by the Light, make sure you do). I am going to recommend seven albums that need to be added to your collection right away. Before I come to that, here is some biography about Springsteen:

Born on September 23, 1949, in the town of Long Branch, New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, also known as "The Boss," played the bar circuit while assembling his famous E Street Band. His breakout 1975 record, Born to Run, united arena rock with human-size tales of working-class America. With dozens of awards under his belt, including 20 Grammys, and more than 65 million albums sold in the U.S. alone, Springsteen is one of the most successful musicians of all time. Also known for his left-leaning political causes, the artist was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.

Springsteen first fell in love with rock 'n' roll when he saw Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. "[Elvis] was as big as the whole country itself," Springsteen later remembered, "as big as the whole dream. He just embodied the essence of it and he was in mortal combat with the thing.


IN THIS PHOTO: Bruce Springsteen looking reflective in 1975/PHOTO CREDIT: Terry O’Neill 

Nothing will ever take the place of that guy." Springsteen's mother took out a loan to buy him a $60 Kent guitar for his 16th birthday, and he hasn't stopped playing the instrument since then.

An outsider and recluse in school, Springsteen frequently got in trouble at his Catholic elementary school. "In the third grade, a nun stuffed me in a garbage can under her desk because she said that's where I belonged," he said. "I also had the distinction of being the only altar boy knocked down by a priest during mass." Several years later, he skipped his own high school graduation because he felt too uncomfortable to attend.

In 1967 an 18-year-old Springsteen was drafted for military service in the Vietnam War. But, as he later told Rolling Stone magazine, the only thought in his head as he traveled to his induction was "I ain't goin'." Springsteen failed his physical, largely due to his deliberately "crazy" behavior and a concussion previously suffered in a motorcycle accident. Springsteen's 4-F classification — unfit for military service — freed him from having to go to Vietnam and allowed him to pursue music full time”.

IN THIS PHOTO: The Boss performing in 1984/PHOTO CREDIT: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

ALL ALBUM COVERS: Getty Images/Spotify


Born to Run


Release Date: 25th August, 1975

Label: Columbia

Producers: Bruce Springsteen/Mike Appel/Jon Landau

Standout Tracks: Thunder Road/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Jungleland


It is this essential quality that sets him apart from everyone else even after all these years. His fictional characters are easier to relate to than any modern indie song sung in the first person. It has been interesting to watch this particular musical shift. How is it that a song rife with such nameless characters as the Magic Rat and the Barefoot Girl, with imagery of Exxon signs and ambulance lights and death in those lonely corridors of the city seems more homely than any song about the end of a relationship which, presumably, any listener would be able to relate to much more? It is as if the old rules have been transferred from stone tablets to pieces of notebook paper, frequently scratched out and rewritten to fit the latest trends. That storytelling trait has, with a few exceptions, long been absent from music and perhaps that is telling. What makes Springsteen's music so great is that his stories and characters made it all the more affecting when he did write something personal. When he personally wondered if love was real it sounded more genuine because of similar, prior sentiments from the lonesome, wandering denizens of Asbury Park. Story echoed real-life and vice versa, each lending weight to one another.

Springsteen's America seen through today's lens seems more modern than the vision being presented currently. It is a marvelous thing that none of Springsteen's songs seem quaint or outdated but it is not surprising in the least. He was able to both hearken to an earlier time by harnessing the power of music's golden age and to make an audience look to the future, to attempt to keep alive a sense of America's commoner nobility – the notion that there is nothing purer than trying to survive through means universal and familiar, through foot before foot and hand over hand. The notion that we could succeed or fail to walk like heroes but either way America, although perhaps dull-eyed and empty-faced, was nevertheless bound for a greater glory somewhere down the road” – Sputnik Music

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/43YIoHKSrEw2GJsWmhZIpu

Key Cut: Born to Run

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Release Date: 2nd June, 1978

Label: Columbia

Producers: Bruce Springsteen/Jon Landau/Steven Van Zandt (assistant)

Standout Tracks: Racing in the Street/Prove It Al Night/Darkness on the Edge of Town


Coming three years, and one extended court battle, after the commercial breakthrough of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town was highly anticipated. Some attributed the album's embattled tone to Springsteen's legal troubles, but it carried on from Born to Run, in which Springsteen had first begun to view his colorful cast of characters as "losers." On Darkness, he began to see them as the working class. One song was called "Factory," and in another, "Badlands," "you" work "'neath the wheel / Till you get your facts learned." Those "facts" are that "Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain't satisfied / Till he rules everything." But Springsteen's characters, some of whom he inhabited and sang for in the first person, had little and were in danger of losing even that. Their only hope for redemption lay in working harder -- "You gotta live it everyday," he sang in "Badlands," but you also, as another song noted, have to "Prove It All Night." And their only escape lay in driving. Springsteen presented these hard truths in hard rock settings, the tracks paced by powerful drumming and searing guitar solos. Though not as heavily produced as Born to Run, Darkness was given a full-bodied sound, with prominent keyboards and double-tracked vocals.

Springsteen's stories were becoming less heroic, but his musical style remained grand. Yet the sound, and the conviction in his singing, added weight to songs like "Racing in the Street" and the title track, transforming the pathetic into the tragic. But despite the rock & roll fervor, Darkness was no easy listen, and it served notice that Springsteen was already willing to risk his popularity for his principles. Indeed, Darkness was not as big a seller as Born to Run. And it presaged even starker efforts, such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad” – AllMusic

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/1WEXfps9XGBqGVXb2gCXxA

Key Cut: The Promised Land

The River

Release Date: 17th October, 1980

Label: Columbia

Producers: Bruce Springsteen/Jon Landau/Steven Van Zandt

Standout Tracks: The Ties That Bind/Hungry Heart/Fade Away


Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life," Springsteen said. "But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone...I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you've got to live with them"

The resulting album is one that might not flow as well as previous Springsteen releases (which flowed impeccably), but a record that spawned some of the strongest single tracks of his career. The strongest single was "Hungry Heart," which is notorious for being originally written by Springsteen for The Ramones. Instead of giving them the song, producer Jon Landau convinced Springsteen to put it on The River. Landau made a good call, as the song became Springsteen's most successful single to date. It reached No. 5 on the U.S. pop singles chart, a catchy and danceable hit that foreshadowed some of the sounds listeners would hear on the immensely popular Born In The U.S.A.

For every upbeat number like "Hungry Heart," "Sherry Darling," "Two Hearts," "Ramrod" or "Out On The Street," Springsteen gives us a slow-tempo ballad like "Independence Day" or the brilliantly orchestrated "Point Blank." Songs like "Stolen Car" (which foreshadowed Tunnel Of Love), "Drive All Night" and closer "Wreck On The Highway" are much slower tracks that must be appreciated for their melodies and special construction. Songs like these are where Springsteen's words cut deepest, with weaving lyricism making an impact when delivered over calmer tides. "Stolen Car" is a vastly underrated song, as Springsteen's personal, slowly delivered lyricism casts an image of a troubled youth: "At first I thought it was just restlessness that would fade as time went by and our love grew deep / In the end it was something more I guess that tore us apart and made us weep / And I'm driving a stolen car down on Eldridge Avenue / Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do” – AbsolutePunk

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/6YNIEeDWqC09YIWzhoSVLg

Key Cut: The River


Release Date: 30th September, 1982

Label: Columbia

Producer: Bruce Springsteen

Standout Tracks: Nebraska/Highway Patrolman/Open All Night


A few songs on the record contain references to transmissions, and these people often find themselves connected to each other in the most distant ways, often by wireless. Roads are littered with radio relay towers, radios in dark cars are choked with talk shows, a cop is called to action by the crackle of the radio. “State Trooper,” a song directly influenced by “Frankie Teardrop” by the synth-punk band Suicide, is Nebraska’s atmosphere reduced to its essence, just an ominous repeating guitar and a voice that sounds like a howling ghost. A Springsteen song like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” shares thematic elements with the songs on Nebraska, but the quiet/loud motif is designed for the stage, where Springsteen and his listeners could share in the energy. “State Trooper” might as well be beamed in from an orbiting satellite—there’s the song and then there is silence.

“State Trooper” also illustrates how the automobile, central to Springsteen’s work throughout his career, functions a bit differently on Nebraska. On Born to Run, the car represented escape, while on Darkness on the Edge of Town and parts of The River it was used to define boundaries, to mark the places where the dramas of life unfold. On Nebraska, the automobile is a kind of isolation chamber, a steel husk that keeps its passengers apart from the world. “Used Cars,” a comparatively gentle song inspired by Springsteen’s own life, finds a child experiencing the shame of class difference. The family is each inhabiting their own world, the father and son unable to connect and share with each other what they might be feeling in the moment. The boy knows only by what he sees, not what his father tells him; the father, consumed with his own shame, has no sense of the boy’s experiences.

Springsteen wrote that he wanted Nebraska to consist of “black bedtime stories,” and the album almost seems to take place during one long night. Those who have jobs are working the night shift. Coming as it does at the end of the album, “Reason to Believe” feels a bit like a sunrise. Suddenly there’s a crack of light, a bit of humor; we can take a breath. The levity comes not from the details of the song, which include two shattered relationships and the death of a dog and a relative, but from the perspective of the person telling the story. Perhaps life, rather than being grim and hopeless, is merely absurd” – Pitchfork 

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/6yskFQZNlLYhkchAxELHi6

Key Cut: Atlantic City

Born in the U.S.A.


Release Date: 4th June, 1984

Label: Columbia

Producers: Jon Landau/Chuck Plotkin/Bruce Springsteen/Steven Van Zandt

Standout Tracks: Cover Me/I’m on Fire/Dancing in the Dark


East Berlin, 1988. Under a graphite sky, a familiar synthesizer riff echoes out over a vast arena. As a thundercrack snare drum underscores one of the most consistently spine-chilling intros ever, Bruce Springsteen, telecaster in hand, stares out toward half a million East Germans who've all started singing the chorus - before he's even begun the first verse.

500,000 Germans shouting "Born In The USA" in some huge-ass park in the late-eighties is plainly quite weird. But they're not American. They're not singing about being American, are they? Are they??

"Born In The USA", the title track of The Boss' mega-selling 1984 album, was much misunderstood. Accused at the same time of being repulsively nationalistic, and viciously Anti-American, the track was endorsed by conservative US politicians (including Ronald Reagan) as an exemplar of "classic American values" whilst the bitter lyrics actually tell the story of disaffected Vietnam veteran, chewed up and spat out by his own country:

'I had a buddy at Khe Sahn

Fighting off the Viet Cong

They're still there, he's all gone

He had a little girl in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms'

Fire up YouTube and watch John Sayles' music video for the track. The killer punch comes near the end where you see the smiling veteran with a hole where his left eye should be.

Despite the poor sync between the video and audio, Springsteen's leather-clad delivery is scarily fierce. Heard alongside the visuals of Bruce spitting the hopeless verses, the song is revealed as far more than a knuckleheaded, jingoistic sing-a-long. It's a ragged-lunged hymn to long gone friends, a treacherous government, a stupid war, having no job, but f*** it, let’s shout the chorus until we cough up our lungs.

Springsteen’s much-discussed genius lies in finding the humanity in the everyday, punching it out with a grizzled kind of grandeur, and managing it dressed as Mad Max. That’s why our German friends, with their cold war blues and bad blow-dries, are singing along in their hundreds of thousands. Despite huge political and national gulfs, there are more similarities than there are differences.

The other songs on the album? Apart from the unsettling, tender "I’m On Fire", it’s familiar fare throughout, reliable rock and soul courtesy of Bruce and his band of E Street musos, with the added bonus of "Glory Days" and the irrepressible "Dancing In The Dark" chucked in too.

But at no point does it become as stupid, or as complex, as track 1” – BBC

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/0PMasrHdpaoIRuHuhHp72O

Key Cut: Born in the U.S.A.

The Rising

Release Date: 30th July, 2002

Label: Columbia

Producer: Brendan O'Brien

Standout Tracks: Lonesome Day/Waitin’ on a Sunny Day/My City of Ruins


The set opens with "Lonesome Day," a midtempo rocker with country-ish roots. Springsteen's protagonist admits to his or her shortcomings in caring for the now-absent beloved. But despite the grief and emptiness, there is a wisdom that emerges in questioning what remains: "Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit/It's hard to swallow come time to pay/That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away/Let kingdom come/I'm gonna find my way/ Through this lonesome day." Brendan O'Brien's hurdy-gurdy cuts through the mix like a ghost, offering a view of an innocent past that has been forever canceled because it never was anyway; the instrument, like the glockenspiels that trim Bruce Springsteen's songs, offers not only texture, but a kind of formalist hint that possibilities don't always lie in the future. Lest anyone mistakenly perceive this recording as a somber evocation of loss and despair, it should also be stated that this is very much an E Street Band recording. Clarence Clemons is everywhere, and the R&B swing and slip of the days of yore is in the house -- especially on "Waitin' for a Sunny Day," "Countin' on a Miracle," "Mary's Place" (with a full horn section), and the souled-out "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." These tracks echo the past with their loose good-time feel, but "echo" is the key word. Brendan O'Brien's guitar-accented production offers us an E Street Band coming out of the ether and stepping in to fill a void. The songs themselves are, without exception, rooted in loss, but flower with the possibility of moving into what comes next, with a hard-won swagger and busted-up grace. They offer balance and a shifting perspective, as well as a depth that is often deceptive.

The title track is one of Springsteen's greatest songs. It is an anthem, but not in the sense you usually reference in regard to his work. This anthem is an invitation to share everything, to accept everything, to move through everything individually and together. Power-chorded guitars and pianos entwine in the choruses with a choir, and Clemons wails on a part with a stinging solo. With The Rising, Springsteen has found a way to be inclusive and instructive without giving up his particular vision as a songwriter, nor his considerable strength as a rock & roll artist. In fact, if anything, The Rising is one of the very best examples in recent history of how popular art can evoke a time period and all of its confusing and often contradictory notions, feelings, and impulses. There are tales of great suffering in The Rising to be sure, but there is joy, hope, and possibility, too. Above all, there is a celebration and reverence for everyday life. And if we need anything from rock & roll, it's that. It would be unfair to lay on Bruce Springsteen the responsibility of guiding people through the aftermath of a tragedy and getting on with the business of living, but rock & roll as impure, messy, and edifying as this helps” – AllMusic

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/23vzCh5cDn0LzdGmGWrT1d

Key Cut: The Rising

Western Stars

Release Date: 14th June, 2019

Label: Columbia

Producer: Ron Aniello

Standout Tracks: Western Stars/Chasin’ Wild Horses/Hello Sunshine


Certainly, there’s a real and rather affecting love evident in the way Springsteen channels the sound on Western Stars. There are moments of transcendent loveliness – not least the shivering instrumental coda of Drive Fast – but he’s also unafraid of its occasional tendency towards schmaltz. Quite the opposite. Listening to There Goes My Miracle or Sundown, on which he slathers on the high-camp strings and transforms his voice into a croon, denuded of the usual Springsteen grit, you get the feeling he’s having a whale of a time: an artist always held up as the apotheosis of honest, blue-collar heartland rock revelling in artifice, in much the same way as he audibly delighted in telling audiences at his Broadway residency that the character of Bruce Springsteen was a Ziggy Stardust-ish construct who had never done anything. It helps that the songs are strong enough to withstand the treatment, seldom slipping into pastiche. The only real misfire is Sleepy Joe’s Café, which feels a little round-edged for its own good, not aided by an ingratiatingly perky accordion: the E Street Band could have turned it into something more driving and potent.

It’s the same sad story, going round and round,” Springsteen sings on The Wayfarer and listening to the rest of the album’s lyrics, you take his point. If the sound of Western Stars sets it apart from Springsteen’s earlier solo albums, the words pull it closer. Like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, it offers a selection of bleak narratives and lingering pen-portraits, and, like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, it seems a product of its era. The former album’s cast of conflicted cops and desperate criminals undercut the gung-ho triumphalism of Reagan’s America, while Tom Joad’s illegal immigrants and drug runners did the same for an era of record highs on the Dow Jones index. Western Stars, meanwhile, is populated by characters past their best – the title track’s fading actor, reduced to hawking Viagra on TV and retelling his stories for anyone who’ll buy him a drink; Drive Fast’s injured stuntman recalling his youthful recklessness, the failed songwriter of Somewhere North of Nashville and the guy glumly surveying the boarded-up site of an old tryst on Moonlight Motel – all of them ruminating on how things have changed, not just for the worse, but in ways none of them anticipated.

It adds up to an album that manages to be both unexpected and of a piece with its author’s back catalogue. Normal service may well be resumed in due course, but Western Stars is powerful enough to make you wish Bruce Springsteen would take more stylistic detours in the future” – The Guardian

Stream: https://open.spotify.com/album/6BhqPpIgY83rqoZ2L78Lte

Key Cut: There Goes My Miracle