Always be careful what you commit to in writing. In my review of 2020 I said: “If ‘Western Stars’ and ‘Letter to You’ haven’t convinced me of the merits of Springsteen then I guess nothing will”.
So, how come five months later I have a number of Springsteen albums on the iPod and have been heard to utter the phrase, “Western Stars isn’t bad you know”? Having come by several of his CDs recently, along with what looks suspiciously like a campaign by my AUK colleagues to sow the seeds of doubt, I have been forced to look at my claim that I don’t like Springsteen.
The problem I think starts with what you might call “radio Bruce”. Such a small selection of his songs ever appeared on the radio back in the day that if you didn’t much like ‘Born To Run’ or the singles taken from ‘Born In The USA’ then you were left with the assumption that this sort of bombastic racket was all he had to offer. And so it went on for a couple of decades.
Viv Fish’s eloquent case for ‘Darkness on The Edge of Town’ as a classic album prompted me to listen to both that album and ‘The Promise’, a collection of unreleased songs recorded around the same time. Hearing Springsteen’s own version of ‘Because The Night’ was a bit of a revelation. As a fan of Patti Smith I had always used her take on the song as a case for the prosecution against Springsteen, bombastic and all that. But the version on ‘The Promise’ focuses on the words which make far more sense in Springsteen’s voice. The title song of ‘Darkness on The Edge of Town’ is a good example of where he hits the sweet spot between the more delicate side of his music and the bluster of full force “shouty Bruce”.
If I’m honest I prefer the first two albums. Songs like ‘For You’ are properly good, although the rather flat production lets them down a bit. Later live versions of that song and ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ sound more assured without tipping over into the more raucous sound that I’m still not keen on. Those early albums have some great narrative lyrics, but you can see why ‘Born to Run’ was the hit, it just sounds so much bigger and brighter.
Still feeling a bit sceptical, I listened to a video that Andrew Frolish posted in January of Springsteen playing ‘This Land is Your Land’. That sent me off to listen to ‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’. The ‘American Land Edition’ is the one to get for the version of ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’ So acoustic Bruce may be what works for me. ‘Nebraska’, and the more reflective tone of ‘The River’ have both got repeat plays recently. Having said that, so has ‘High Hopes’, not a universally popular album, but the title track and ‘Hunter of Invisible Game’ are fine songs.
Compilations can be good gateway discs to an artist and in this case ‘The Essential Bruce Springsteen’ is the best I’ve found. The 3CD version has some intriguing songs including a rollicking ‘Viva Las Vegas’. That 3CD set shows up online quite often so if you are a Bruce sceptic that is probably the best place to start. Am I a Bruce fan after this? His voice is still one I need to take in small doses, but with plenty of albums still to discover, particularly the live ones, I’m certainly open to the possibility that I could be.