Monday, January 26, 2009

Musings on Bruce

The Boss (does anyone still call him that?) is all over the news lately, with the Inauguration, the upcoming Super Bowl appearance, and a new album hitting stores tomorrow. It’s a good time for me to offer a quick review of the latest 33 1/3 book I’ve read, on Born In The USA. The 33 1/3 titles are small, neat little books for those that need more than liner notes. Born In The USA is not one of my favorite efforts from Bruce Springsteen, so I picked this volume to reacquaint myself. It may have been the complete over saturation of Bruce in the music world when this record came out in 1984, or the heavily commercialized sound, but I rarely play this album. The author, Geoffrey Himes, makes the case that this record, along with Nebraska and the numerous outtakes from this period (many now have been released on Tracks) is Bruce’s finest hour. This is a tough argument for long time fans who revere the trilogy of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River as his best work, not to mention some of his latest efforts as a mature songwriter.

Himes' main argument is that Bruce refined his songwriting approach from the romantic, symbolic and often complex lyrics of his earlier work to a simplified and ultimately more successful style during this period, culminating in Born In The USA. His other main point is that thematically, Bruce shifted from the youthful rock’n’roll dream mentality to a focus on real characters, and what it means face the harsh realities of life. I agree that the early records were often overwrought, with young Bruce trying to cram in every musical and lyrical idea he had into each song. But I would argue that the critical songwriting shift Himes points to really occurred in 1977-78, with Darkness on the edge of Town. We went from the dreamlike imagery of Jungleland to the realities of Factory in a heartbeat. Darkness paved the way to the stripped down songwriting of Nebraska and Born in the USA, but for me, musically it’s superior.

Going back and listening to Born in the USA, it’s a better record than I gave it credit for, but ultimately sounds a little dated, while Darkness sounds timeless. I’ve always felt that Born In The USA was a calculated effort to propel Bruce from cult status to pop superstar, and perhaps the simplified song style was more about public accessibility than the artist’s own refinement. But that’s the cynic in me. The songs hold up, and tunes like Surrender are certainly more accessible to a mainstream audience than It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City, but guess which one most fans would prefer to hear him perform live?

Whatever your point of view on Bruce’s music, the 33 1/3 book on this album is worth reading, even for the most knowledgeable fan.The book is very well researched and offers many interesting facts about this period in Bruce’s career. It would have benefited from some editing, as it is repetitive and a little tedious in spots.

Also, if you’re a Darkness fan, good news was released today; a 30th anniversary special edition re-release is planned for this year, along the lines of the Born to Run box set a few years ago.

Regarding the new record, I’ll reserve judgment until I hear it all, but early reviews are not impressive. Working On A Dream sounds fairly innocuous, but the Wrestler is superb. Bruce normally takes his time between releases, but this one comes right on the heels of Magic. I don’t want to suggest that the album was rushed to coincide with the Super Bowl performance, but in this era of music and marketing, I’m sure that is exactly what happened. I guess this means we'll hear Workin' On A Dream this Sunday instead of Candy's Room (one of my favorite songs when performed live) or Adam Raised A Cain.

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