No Irony, Please, We're Bruce Fans

Springsteen's new CD set has real meaning, man

Disc One takes us from the 1972 audition through 1977: Springsteen starts out strumming and yelping solo and ends up screaming balls-out with the fully formed E Street Band. The early tracks are shapeless epics, audacious swings for the fences. But after the Born to Run sessions, he tames the bombast and formlessness and settles into a trust in simple rock & roll structures that he's kept to ever since. At the same time, his voice matures and splits into half a dozen personas, and his Jersey romanticism shapes itself into something darker, more comprehensively American.

And on Disc Two, more deadly. This disc presents music from The River and Nebraska years, when Springsteen freed himself from legal problems and the thought-brought home with depressing force on Darkness on the Edge of Town-that sometimes rock & roll couldn't afford to be any fun. There are long, celebrative stretches on this disc, especially from "Where the Bands Are" to "I Wanna Be With You," where Springsteen's invention seems effortless, where it's just one rocking track after another. There's also the chilling Nebraska-era version of "Born in the USA" and the excellent B-side "Shut out the Light," whose lyrics exemplify the narrative concision that Springsteen learned after Born to Run. There are missteps, too: two versions of "Be True," both of them inferior to a live version on the Chimes of Freedom EP.

Disc Three covers the Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love sessions. Springsteen had by now become so famous that his heroism consisted in struggling to keep his pact with the audience intact amidst the media blitz. (In 1985, he played a four-night stand at the LA Coliseum for 340,000 fans, and if you have any doubts about whether he delivered, listen to "Born in the USA" and "Seeds" from the live album.) He was for many a living embodiment of the promise he sung about, a poor boy who believed till he made good, who didn't compromise his principles, and who against all odds strided the mass-media blast to speak with unfettered integrity about American conditions both tragic and comic. This disc doesn't get going for a while, though; songs like the bloated "Frankie" don't help. But "Rockaway the Days," with a deceptively light three-chord progression and sly vocal delivery that belies the pathos of the lyric, is great. As is the rest of the disc, with Springsteen stringing together strong B-sides ("Pink Cadillac," "Janey Don't You Lose Heart" and "Lucky Man") with Tunnel of Love outtakes that point toward the inevitable rounding of Springsteen's career arc downward. Inevitable because nobody could sustain that kind of fame, not when "Born in the USA" was usurped by Ronald Reagan as a re-election ploy and by gone-tomorrow fans who thought it was the soundtrack to Rambo; not when the media backlash hit; not when Springsteen broke up the E Street Band; not when his first marriage flamed out when his extramarital affair with Patti Scialfa (whom he subsequently married) was plastered in the tabloids.

Disc Four is about picking up the pieces. In Songs, a coffee-table book of lyrics that's interspersed with Springsteen's commentary, he writes that in the two years after the Tunnel of Love tour, he "did very little musically." He waited until he had sifted through the firestorm of the late '80s-when the rock & roll promise he'd worked 15 years to create had crashed and burned-before he began to work again. Then, he says, he wrote exercises-pop melodies, R&B stompers, country-tinged ballads, rockabilly shuffles-as if he were starting over again; but this time, he was trusting the forms of rock to re-ignite his passion. Lots of critics of Human Touch and Lucky Town, the fruit of these exercises, complained that there was something by-the-numbers about them; but in hindsight-and with the evidence of the new songs-it's clear that, 25 years into the life, Springsteen has thrived by adhering to rock as a form, dwelling deep in its history, mythology and song structures. And that far from abandoning his faith in rock's redemptive power in the '90s, his willful submission to its formal limits-he won't express himself any other way (no movies, no books of "poetry," no collaborations with Burt Bacharach)-is a final testament to that faith. Disc Four's best songs, like "Gave It a Name" and "Loose Change," are performed mostly alone with simple guitar figures and synthesizer washes behind the lyrics, which befits Springsteen's lonely road toward finding an assured middle-aged voice. These songs-swirling with guilt, anguish and regret-almost always stem from sexual passion darkened by deceit, but they also convey a longing for love, beauty and, yes, redemption that is more alive-if more complicated-than ever.

The coffee-table book is another matter. At 50 bucks, it's an ostentatious bit of canonization prior to Springsteen's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and as a practical matter, it's unnecessary. Dylan did a lyrics book in the '80s, but since Dylan rarely prints his words on his albums, the book served a function. But aside from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen's albums have always included lyrics, and they read much better on an album sleeve than on glossy paper. Sure, to read through the words from his first 12 albums is a lesson in extraordinary rock craftsmanship: "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "Born in the USA," "Tunnel of Love," "Living Proof" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" are such classic American narratives and their detail is so rich that they read like treatments for movies you're dying to see. But we already knew that. Springsteen's commentaries on each album aren't particularly revealing, and sometimes he's evasive, as in his discussion of Tunnel of Love, when he neglects to mention the fact that the album's impetus comes entirely from his first marriage.

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