Next week Bruce Springsteen will release his 18th studio album, High Hopes. In the parlance of Springsteen’s discography, it’s comparable to Working on a Dream, though it doesn’t quite sink down to the Human Touch–Lucky Town tier. Which is to say this: It’s not very good.
In some ways High Hopes isn’t really a proper Springsteen record — it is composed of covers, previously recorded songs, and tunes that have only been performed live. The end result is a grab bag of music from different eras that doesn’t jell and probably wasn’t intended to do so. If you can appreciate High Hopes in the spirit it was conceived — as a relatively low-key collection of minor and occasionally odd tracks — the record does have its pleasures. It’s fascinating to hear the ultimate classic rocker covering songs by Suicide (“Dream Baby Dream”) and the Saints (“Just Like Fire Would”), for instance. And while the material isn’t all that distinguished, Springsteen ornaments the album with lively flourishes. (Check out the Arabian violin swooping over the wobbly organ solo on “Down in the Hole,” or Tom Morello’s rafters-shaking guitar playing on the update of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”)
So, even when the songwriting isn’t there, you can’t ever doubt Springsteen’s commitment. He turns 65 later this year, and he still sounds like a guy who believes his best music is yet to come. As far as the artist himself is concerned, Bruce Springsteen’s legacy remains very much unsettled.
But what about the music he has already made? What are we to make of Springsteen’s career up until this point? More importantly, how do we assess his art and life based on highly arbitrary, oppressively subjective, and completely ridiculous criteria? If by “we” you mean “me,” and by “assess” you mean “playfully determine whether various Springsteen miscellany is underrated, overrated, or properly rated,” you would do it exactly like this.
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) Springsteen historians regard this record as a rough draft or prequel for Bruce’s second LP, released later the same year, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. This is not entirely wrong, as Greetings does indeed bear many of the hallmarks of a preliminary sketch — there are too many words,1 the instrumentation is unpolished, and the energy of the performances far outpaces the craft of the songwriting. I just don’t happen to find the roughness of this record to be a negative. For an artist who would go on to almost always lean toward the “over” option when it comes to production, the “let’s plug in and play” presentation of Greetings is endearingly slipshod.
This record immediately branded Springsteen as another early-’70s “new Dylan,” but in retrospect it lays out the familiar Bossian themes with the same clarity that Martin Scorsese brought to Mean Streets in ’73 — youth is idealized (“Growin’ Up”), the violence is stylized and cinematic (“It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”), motorized transportation is used as a metaphor for death (“Lost in the Flood”), motorized transportation is used as a metaphor for rebirth (“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”), and, of course, there’s The Night (“Spirit in the Night”). UNDERRATED
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973) Bruce’s jazz odyssey. The long, melodramatic songs on side two point toward the next record, though The Wild owes more to Van Morrison (and Steely Dan) than to Phil Spector. The album’s most famous track, “Rosalita,” became a concert staple, though I prefer the semi-staple “Kitty’s Back,” which successfully executes the dramatic arc that the rest of the record attempts and never quite pulls off. It’s a good (and occasionally great) record, but I feel like Springsteen fans who don’t want to say that Born to Run is their favorite record instead pick this album. OVERRATED.
Born to Run (1975) There’s a particular brand of vanity that exists in certain kinds of young men between the ages of 19 and 27 where it’s vitally important to present a façade that is equal parts masculine, feminine, tough, and sensitive. For instance (and this example is purely hypothetical and not at all autobiographical), this certain kind of young man may drive around alone late on rainy nights — he actually chooses to drive when it rains because it is appropriately evocative for his inner emotional geography — while listening to Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Jungleland.” And when he feels himself starting to cry, he will look in the rearview mirror in order to stare at his own tears. He knows he will never tell anyone that he cries alone to the sounds of the Big Man’s titanic blowing, but he guesses that strangers will sense it, and this will make him appear soulful. (Forgive him. He is a little naive and very silly.) It doesn’t matter that the lyrics of “Jungleland” have virtually nothing to do with his life — he’s pretty sure that the only people for whom “kids flash guitars just like switchblades” represents reality are Danny Zuko and Kenickie. But this song is still his avatar, and he’s confident it always will be.
Because this person is a nerd, he will remember that a 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen painstakingly directed Clemons in the studio during the recording of “Jungleland,” telling him when to go up, when to go down, and when to hold. And he will wonder whether Bruce did this while staring at himself in the mirror. PROPERLY RATED.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) This was the first Springsteen record coproduced by his new manager and ex–rock critic Jon Landau, and it sounds like a record designed by a rock critic. The songs are shorter (rock critics hate jamminess), more cynical (rock critics hate sentimentality), and generally weighed down by undercurrents of depression and severe daddy issues (no comment). So, I guess I’m outing myself as a sucker for critic-bait when I say this is my favorite Springsteen album. It’s his best “guitar solo” record (see “Adam Raised a Cain” or any live version of “Prove It All Night”). It’s also the first, best example of Springsteen juxtaposing rousing rock music with miniaturist, miserablist, Middle American storytelling — which is to say, it kicks your ass and crushes your heart. PROPERLY RATED.
The River (1980) This is a double album that feels like two separate albums. The first record takes place during the day — the people in these songs go to work and then drink off the drudgery at the corner tavern. The second record occurs in the middle of the night. (Not to be confused with The Night, the romanticized nocturnal fantasyland of the early records. This night is black, cold, and silent, like that final jump cut on the Sopranos finale.) I listen to the first disc at least three times as much, mostly because I love how it splits the difference between Born to Run and Darkness. This disc contains some of Springsteen’s most exuberant songs (“Two Hearts,” “Out in the Street”) as well as his most direct gut punches (“Independence Day,” the title track). Then you have the second disc, which is so ominous and death-obsessed it manages to out-Darkness Darkness. (This is the side that Sylvester Stallone plays endlessly in Cop Land, because the big lug feels like a stolen car being driven on a pitch-black night.)
Initially greeted by critics as a masterwork and responsible for Springsteen’s first hit, “Hungry Heart,” The River was subsequently overshadowed by the records that surround it in his discography. Casual listeners will always pick up Born to Run or Nebraska first. But The River is the most representative of his entire body of work. UNDERRATED.
Nebraska (1982) I love Nebraska. I love that it contains my favorite Springsteen “hit.”2 I love that it has at least three deep cuts (the title track, “Johnny 99,” and “Used Cars”) that belong in the 98th percentile of Bruce Springsteen deep cuts. I love that it easily has the best cover art of any Springsteen album.3 I love that Bruce recorded it at home and on a four-track recorder, which makes Nebraska his Bee Thousand. I love that Kanye West likened Yeezus to Nebraska, because “Hold My Liquor” is essentially “Highway Patrolman” as sung from Frankie’s point of view. That said, we’re not here to figure out whether Nebraska is great, but whether it’s properly rated. This complicates the issue, because Nebraska is the go-to record for people who don’t like Springsteen because it’s not like Springsteen’s other albums.
Which is fine, except these same people then take the next step and declare Nebraska to be Springsteen’s “best” album, based on the (strange) criterion that an artist’s least characteristic work should somehow be considered superior to his most characteristic. I can’t allow this. (In my view, Born, Darkness, and The River are all better records.) Therefore, I must declare Nebraska to be ever so slightly OVERRATED.
Born in the U.S.A. (1984) It seems ridiculous to suggest that an album that sold 15 million copies in this country alone and spawned seven top-10 singles might be underrated, so I won’t. But if I were to make that case, I would merely point out that Born in the U.S.A. is hardly ever mentioned in the “Best Springsteen album” conversation, even though it has the stats and the songs (“Dancing in the Dark” and “I’m on Fire,” with “No Surrender” and “Downbound Train” coming off the bench) to put it there. A lot of this has to do with Born in the U.S.A.‘s unwitting status as a prop for demagogues. Dumb people who identify as conservative rewarded this album in the ’80s for extolling the virtues of Reagan’s America (when in fact it does the opposite). In retrospect, dumb people who identify as liberal have penalized this album for being jingoistic (when in fact it is the opposite). But, again, a record this popular can’t be credibly classified as underrated, so let’s just say the massive sales and widespread misinterpretation cancel each other out. PROPERLY RATED.
Tunnel of Love (1987) Based on my personal experience, this is by far his most underrated record. (I still encounter Springsteen fans who dismiss Tunnel of Love as an unfortunate byproduct of Bruce’s “expensive synths and cheap bolo ties” period.) Lyrically, this is his best album, even better than Nebraska. You really shouldn’t be allowed to hear this record until you’ve been married for a few years, though at that point it might strike a little too close to home. If Ingmar Bergman had been born in Freehold and cut his artistic teeth at the Stone Pony, he would’ve made this record in place of Scenes From a Marriage. Totally ’80s production aside — though, really, Tunnel of Love basically sounds as modern as that Haim record — this album represents the heaviest blues of Springsteen’s career. The songs are about men and women who flirt, have sex, fall in love, get married, get bored, have sex with other people, and wind up stuck in the middle of that dark night from the second disc of The River. Shout-out to Patti Scialfa, the woman for whom Bruce left his wife Julianne Phillips, who provides incredible backing vocals and a fitting subtext to the tortured cheater ode “One Step Up.” UNDERRATED.
Human Touch (1992) Bruce ditches Jersey and the E Street Band for L.A. and a new backing group that includes future American Idol judge Randy Jackson, the guitarist from Lone Justice, and the drummer from the “Love Shack” video. Oh, and the ’80s are over and misanthropic heroin addicts have turned rock away from “Born to Run” and toward “Destined for Piss-Stained Couches.” Yep, the ’90s were a bad time for Bruce, and it doesn’t get any worse in his catalogue than Human Touch. The only rock album possibly more out of step with the times in ’92 was Def Leppard’s Adrenalize, but at least Joe Elliott contained his irrelevance to just one record. Good news first: The holler-through-the-murk shimmer of “Gloria’s Eyes” is a diamond in the rough. It belongs on any post–glory years “unsung” Bruce playlist. The rest of Human Touch deserves its reputation as thoroughly spoiled macho man-meat.4 PROPERLY RATED.
Lucky Town (1992) Half of these songs are as corny as anything on Human Touch. (“Leap of Faith” and “Local Hero” sound like Bruce trying to write Eddie and the Cruisers songs.) The other half (especially the title track, “If I Should Fall Behind,” and “Beautiful Reward”) isn’t on par with his ’70s and ’80s material, but (by default) it’s his strongest output of the decade. This shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement, exactly, but given its terrible reputation, I’d say Lucky Town is a touch UNDERRATED.
The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) I’ve never listened to this the whole way through. And neither have you. Good thing the title track comes first. PROPERLY RATED.
The Rising (2002) This was the record that the country needed Bruce Springsteen to make after September 11. His performance of “My City of Ruins” — actually written one year before the terrorist attack — during the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit had all of the gravitas and resolve that people expected from the Boss at such a tragic time. As hokey as Springsteen’s detractors find his inspirational heartland spokesman shtick, it’s undeniable that millions of people find solace in songs like “My City of Ruins” that are consciously conceived as bulwarks against the existential void precisely when that void appears to be closing in.
So, I don’t want to underestimate the importance this record had for people when it was released. It’s just that, for me, The Rising signifies my least-favorite version of Springsteen — the one where he’s in message-driven stump speech mode. This is a record about Big Themes being thrust upon little people, as opposed to records like Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A., which explored the lives of little people in order to illuminate the Big Themes lurking in the background.5OVERRATED.
Devils & Dust (2004) At first I thought this was like Nebraska but worse, but over time I’ve come around. Now it’s like The Ghost of Tom Joad except likable. UNDERRATED.
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) Not essential by any means, but it’s the best “band” record he’s ever made outside of E Street. And “O Mary Don’t You Weep” is one of my two or three favorite non-Magic Springsteen tracks of the ’00s. A fine tribute to Pete Seeger, and an excellent homage to Tom Waits. UNDERRATED.
Magic (2007) At first I resisted the obvious classicism of Magic — surely I couldn’t allow myself, as a devotee of Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, to blindly love deliberate throwbacks like “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” and “Gypsy Biker” without checking myself. Then I thought, Stop being a moron. And so I did. I’m not privy to the private creative conversations that went on during the making of Magic, but somebody must’ve persuaded Springsteen to get back to making enjoyable rock records that sound good when played loudly in bars. This idea (apparently) hadn’t occurred to Bruce since Born in the U.S.A., but Magic showed he was still really good at making that kind of record. PROPERLY RATED.
Working on a Dream (2009) Neil Young makes albums like this all the time, on which the songs are half-baked but are thrown together in the hopes that they will somehow cohere into a weirdly harmonious mess. Springsteen is typically more cautious than Young, so a record like Working on a Dream seems worse than it is. It actually reminds me a lot of High Hopes — I don’t really like it, but I appreciate that Springsteen was able to say, “Fuck it, I’m gonna go ahead and release ‘Outlaw Pete’ even if it sounds like Kiss.” PROPERLY RATED.
Wrecking Ball (2012) I feel like I personally overrated Wrecking Ball when it first came out. I listened to it intensely for a few days, wrote a really positive review, and I don’t think I’ve played it all the way through since. Most of the tracks sound like rejected theme songs for a preachy David Simon TV drama. The title track is still great, though. OVERRATED.
Between albums, boxed sets, EPs, and DVDs, there are 10 of them. (Which is just a fraction of the live bootlegs that are easily accessible online.) Out of all those, I’d recommend just one, Hammersmith Odeon London ’75, to the casual fan.6 This is not a great average. OVERRATED.
B Sides, Non-Album Tracks, and Outtakes
Only Bob Dylan and Neil Young rival Springsteen’s “shadow” discography of unreleased (or “under”-released) material. Springsteen’s songwriting output, especially in the late ’70s and early ’80s, was legendarily prodigious — he was famous for writing three or four songs for every one that ended up on a record. A lot of this unreleased material was eventually released, and a good chunk of it is brilliant. Discs 2 and 3 of the Tracks boxed set rank with the best albums of his career. Then there’s The Promise, the double record released in 2010 that was made at the same time as Darkness. For Springsteen fanatics, comparing favorite outtakes is the foremost game of one-upmanship. Here, I’ll start with “Iceman.” What do you got? PROPERLY RATED.
The Live Concert Experience
This is the most mythologized aspect of Bruce Springsteen’s career. Springsteen isn’t described merely as a great live performer — his concerts are classified as RELIGIOUS experiences conjuring SPIRITS that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Forget the hyperbole. I can only address this based on my firsthand experience.
I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band four times. The first was at Target Center in Minneapolis in 1999. I was 21 and it was just OK. The second time was at Bradley Center in Milwaukee on St. Patrick’s Day in 2008. I loved it. The third time was also at Bradley Center in 2009. He played the entirety of Born to Run and brought out Richard Davis7 to play on “Meeting Across the River.” It was amazing. The fourth time was in 2012 at Wrigley Field. My seats sucked, the sound sucked, the Old Style Light could’ve been a touch colder, and I still had a wonderful time. PROPERLY RATED.
The E Street Band
Clarence Clemons: R.I.P. The Big Man was like an athlete whose worth isn’t measured by statistics. While it’s true that saxophone doesn’t appear in the majority of Springsteen songs, Clemons was unquestionably the heart of the band. PROPERLY RATED.
Garry Tallent: Unless you’re Paul McCartney or Geddy Lee, the bass player is always underrated, particularly if you’re in a band that happens to rock. UNDERRATED.
Danny Federici: R.I.P. He looked the most like a guy who was selected randomly from an anonymous New Jersey bar band. But he didn’t play like it. UNDERRATED.
Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez: The original drummer. He got fired after he accused Springsteen’s manager of stealing from the band. A few years later, Springsteen himself sued his manager. Rock rule no. 1: The drummer always takes the hit, even when he’s right. UNDERRATED.
David Sancious: The original pianist. He played on the first two records and then came back for Human Touch. One of the best musicians to ever spend time in the E Street Band, his playing on “Incident on 57th Street” is exquisite. UNDERRATED.8
Ernest “Boom” Carter: The drummer who briefly replaced Lopez and was subsequently replaced by Max Weinberg. If he hadn’t played drums on “Born to Run,” nobody would remember him. But he did, so he’s immortal. UNDERRATED.
Roy Bittan: The most important member of the E Street Band in terms of Springsteen’s signature sound, even if he looks like a driver’s ed instructor from Hackensack. UNDERRATED.
Max Weinberg: If Bittan defines the sound of the E Street Band, Weinberg personifies the band’s personality. He looks a little square, but he packs a wallop. PROPERLY RATED.
Suki Lahav: She played violin for a year in the mid-’70s. I’ll be honest: I never heard of her until five minutes before typing this sentence. UNDERRATED.
Steven Van Zandt: The official consigliere of New Jersey icons, Miami Steve stood at the right hand of Boss Springsteen and Boss Soprano. If those guys can overlook Van Zandt’s pirate-dressing tendencies, so can the rest of us. PROPERLY RATED.
Nils Lofgren: Before he joined the E Street Band, Lofgren was one of those whiz-kid prodigies who wound up playing guitar on Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush when he was 17. The fact that being a member of Crazy Horse at that age didn’t kill him is impressive enough, but he’s also had a long and respected solo career outside of the E Street Band. UNDERRATED.
Patti Scialfa: The rare instance of the rock-star wife who was already in the band when she married the lead singer (and therefore didn’t have to be forcibly inserted à la Linda McCartney). PROPERLY RATED.
Soozie Tyrell: She plays violin and contributes backing vocals. She seems nice. PROPERLY RATED.
Jake Clemons: The Big Man’s nephew. You could be cynical and argue that his hiring was nepotism and be absolutely correct. But the E Street Band is maybe the only institution I allow myself to get sentimental about anymore, and I’m glad there’s somebody named Clemons who’s still in the lineup. PROPERLY RATED.
When it comes to Bruce Springsteen’s music videos, we only really have to talk about three of them, since they’re the only ones anybody remembers–slash–makes fun of.
“Dancing in the Dark”
One of my favorite filmmakers of all time, Brian De Palma, directed this, which is why I refuse to take it at face value. Yes, if you ignore the subtext, the “Dancing in the Dark” video is the single cheesiest shooting star in the Springsteen galaxy. But let’s dig a little deeper: The lyrics for “Dancing in the Dark” are pretty clearly about a guy who hates himself. He wants to change his hair, his clothes, and his face. He wants to be a great man, though he can’t express this without exposing his lack of imagination. (He thinks a self-evident statement like “you can’t start a fire without a spark” is insightful, for example.) But in the video, Springsteen is smiling like an insane extra in Reefer Madness. He is so broad that it seems disingenuous, particularly given the song he’s performing. It’s such an over-the-top representation of Springsteen that it almost seems like a purposeful choice to be fake.
The same year that this video was released, De Palma made Body Double, which is about an unbelievably dorky actor (played by unbelievably dorky actor Craig Wasson) who is set up to witness the murder of a woman who is not the person she appears to be. Thematically, “doubles” appear throughout De Palma’s filmography;9 it’s among the cinematic obsessions he picked up from Alfred Hitchcock. Do you see where I’m going with this? The buffed, smiling, frightfully Caucasian robo-dancing version of Springsteen in the “Dancing in the Dark” video is in fact a Springsteen “double” that subtly critiques how cartoonish Springsteen’s image became during the Born in the U.S.A. album cycle. It’s supposed to be cheesy, in other words.
Do I actually believe this? Not completely. But it makes the video much more bearable. UNDERRATED.
“I’m on Fire”
I thought this one was directed by De Palma, too, because it’s sexy and prominently features a mysterious woman who probably just got done gratuitously masturbating in the shower.10 But it was actually directed by John Sayles, whose big film from ’84, The Brother From Another Planet, shares no subtext with this video. This is just as well, because this video is good enough to stand on its own. PROPERLY RATED.
Two thoughts: (1) The E Street Band was so versatile, it boasted both a tambourine player and a cowbell player simultaneously; and (2) all due respect to Andy Serkis, but mid-’80s Steven Van Zandt would’ve murdered the role of Gollum without CGI. PROPERLY RATED.
Springsteen’s Buick-Size Chin in the “We Are the World” Video
Impressionists booked countless gigs at countless Chuckle Huts across the nation in the mid-’80s by jutting out their chins to simian-like proportions, gurgling a Michael Jackson–penned chorus about starving African children, and calling it Bruce Springsteen. This is the moment when the Boss briefly morphed into Rocky — he was the do-ragged and denim-clad manifestation of earnest American kick-assitude. In the “We Are the World” video, you can see him swallowing the world’s problems and running them forcibly through his lower colon. He implored viewers to join the fight — not by pointing an accusatory finger but rather by persuasively directing his earnest jawline. Alas, world hunger was not solved in the process, so I must say OVERRATED.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”
I have a friend who hates Springsteen as much as I love Springsteen, and he insists that the moment near the end of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” when Bruce stifles a laugh ranks among the most irritating two or three seconds in Christmas rock history. On this one Boss-related point, we agree. OVERRATED.
Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox Performing “Light of Day” in Light of Day
With the possible exception of “Fire,” this is the best Springsteen song not initially performed by Springsteen. Because even the Boss defers to Marty McFly.11 The moment when Joan Jett suddenly appears onstage is rivaled only by David St. Hubbins suddenly waving Nigel Tufnel to his side at the end of This Is Spinal Tap in the annals of great fake rock band moments. UNDERRATED.
“Streets of Philadelphia”
This song has been mostly forgotten in Springsteen lore, but it was a top 10 hit during a fallow period in his career and won an Oscar for best original song, so “Streets of Philadelphia” is actually kind of important. “Streets” conforms to the cliché about aging rock stars in the ’90s getting “sonically adventurous” by employing lightly funky drum machines. It shouldn’t work, but this is a good tune. It’s a “message” song, but it’s not Bruce in dreaded stump speech mode. Rather, it’s a quiet character study about the time that Tom Hanks had AIDS. UNDERRATED.
MTV Plugged Special
This is Bruce playing songs from two of his worst albums with musicians who aren’t in the E Street Band, and yet it’s somehow really good. The Human Touch/Lucky Town material sounds 100 percent better live than it does on the records. And Springsteen approaches Darkness-level greatness with his guitar playing. When this aired in 1992, I remember watching with a group of friends who thought Springsteen was the biggest tool in the world. And I had to sit there and silently love it. The silence ends now. UNDERRATED.
His Appearance in High Fidelity
It can’t really be overstated how unfashionable Springsteen had become by the end of the ’90s. Two developments helped to turn the tide: (1) his reunion with the E Street Band, and (2) his cameo in High Fidelity. It’s not so much that these events made it “acceptable” to like Springsteen so much as they reminded the public why he was awesome in the first place. Also: As a person who occasionally dreams about Springsteen at the precise moments when he needs counsel from the wise father figure he’s missing in his waking life, I can testify to the accuracy of this scene. UNDERRATED.
His Slide During “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” at the 2009 Super Bowl Halftime Show
By this time, Springsteen had successfully reasserted himself as a national treasure. He’s like a member of the family now — specifically, the uncle who drinks too much at the Super Bowl party and winds up recklessly hurtling himself across the floor. PROPERLY RATED.
His Performance of “Whip My Hair” As Born to Run–era Springsteen With Jimmy Fallon As Neil Young
Many people under the age of 30 know Bruce Springsteen mainly for his impersonation of ’70s Bruce Springsteen on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Bruce is a little stiff, and not nearly as good at imitating himself as Fallon is at doing Young. But this is still pretty amazing, as is the encore of “Sexy and I Know It.” Given the trajectory of most rock stars, engaging in intentional self-parody isn’t a bad place to end up. PROPERLY RATED.