No Irony, Please, We're Bruce Fans

Springsteen's new CD set has real meaning, man

For Bruce-ophiles, the release of a four-CD, 66-song set of mostly unreleased recordings collected over a 25-year career must seem like one of those dreams come true that Springsteen has always told his fans they couldn't expect-not from life, and certainly not from him.

Springsteen's glory days-from the early '70s (when he staked his claim to become the World's Greatest Rocker) to the mid-'80s (when for a few years, nobody could deny him the title)-are gone, and neither he nor his fans quite expect his music to redeem people's lives anymore. Then, redemption was the point: fallen Catholic that he was, Springsteen-in the face of rampant cultural cynicism-made rock & roll his substitute savior, and he built an altar out of passion plays like "Thunder Road," "Badlands," "The Ties That Bind," "Stolen Car," "Atlantic City" and "Born in the USA." Now, his longtime fans, under no illusion that rock can change their lives in their 40s the way it did when they were 17, are happy simply to hear him keep going-to keep ringing changes on the same eight or nine chords, the same metaphors of guys heading nowhere in cars; of girls putting their party dresses on; of flowing rivers, blue-collar deadends and sacred light.

They are good chords-and resilient metaphors-and as Springsteen has grown older, he's recast them, exposed their hidden depths, and gone on to erect the most complete, mythically charged vision of any rock artist since Bob Dylan paved Highway 61.

Unlike Dylan, though, or other pantheon rockers (Neil Young, Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), Springsteen has never made a bad or indifferent album. Everyone knows that Dylan is worth about one good album a decade now, that Morrison's records are as scattershot as his concerts, and that the Stones' music of the past 20 years is so boring they hardly bother playing it in their stadium spectacles. That Springsteen's output has been mostly superb makes the high quality of a from-the-vaults CD set like Tracks that much more surprising. (When Dylan's Bootleg Series box set-the true album of comparison here-came out in 1991, what stunned and relieved his fans was that Dylan had actually made some great music in the '70s and '80s; he just didn't put much of it on his albums.)

In the 23 years since 1975's Born to Run, Springsteen has released just eight studio albums-a fact that pits his legendary control-freakism against his passion to make music -which means not only that his albums have tended to be high-octane distillates of that passion, but also that he's withheld at least three or four times what he's released.

Tracks is a compilation of, by my count, nine songs that were originally B-sides (some are alternate takes), two live recordings of previously unreleased songs, nine alternate takes of stuff from the albums, and 46 studio outtakes you could have only heard before on bootlegs. Given Springsteen's stubborn desire for coherence, he's stamped this set with a plot: Tracks presents a kind of shadow canon of his career, laying out the songs in a way that underscores the arc of his story much better than did his Greatest Hits. "Zero and Blind Terry," while sounding very The Wild, Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, clearly previews Boss-O-Ramic operettas like "Jungleland." "Rendezvous" is great midtempo '60s rock whose sentiments are Born to Run but whose arrangement is as lean as those on Darkness on the Edge of Town. "Where the Bands Are" could have been the rowdy track opening The River; "Brothers Under the Bridges ('83)" could have (should have) replaced "No Surrender" on Born in the USA; "The Wish," a song for Springsteen's mother, could have been paired with "Walk Like a Man," Tunnel of Love's homage to his father. And almost everything on the remarkable fourth CD could have been on Human Touch without disturbing that album's impact.

The "story" that Springsteen has been telling all this time and which gets reiterated with accumulating power on Tracks would seem less remarkable if Springsteen didn't end up enacting its heroism on a national stage. The story's backbone (and if you're sneering now, Springsteen will probably never mean much to you) is the belief that rock can blow you out of one life and into another, that rock's transformative power is a door into an American Promise that actually means something.

Beginning a career based on such an idealistic faith in 1972-when the country with which he identified so painfully had been almost entirely depleted of ideals by war, scandal and excess-has always cast Springsteen as a rear-guard artist, a "sincerist" who didn't get the joke, a rebel without the anarchist's requisite fuck-all ironic streak. While he auditioned "Mary Queen of Arkansas" and three other Jersey-shore-boy-longing-for-love songs for John Hammond in May 1972 (the opening songs on Tracks), the most bracing things in rock were David Bowie and the New York Dolls, image manipulators whose passion always had an irony out-clause. Springsteen's didn't: he was the true believer who openly said rock saved his life, and when he got onstage, he felt it was his job to try to give to his fans what Elvis, Roy Orbison, Dylan and a thousand one-shot artists on scratchy old 45s had done for him. The passing down of that essential rock legacy has been his guiding principle-his contract and promise-all along.

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