As I began the writing, listening, and reading for this list, I started to think about a weird quality of Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue that I hadn’t previously considered. For someone I’ve grown up knowing as an already well-established icon, it’s surprising to look at his body of work and realize the bizarre patterns within: it’s all kind of fits and starts, multiple “make or break” moments, long stretches of inactivity blowing open with sudden and sustained productivity. You don’t really consider this when you’re just presented with a list of his classic albums and how they ranked on all these “Best Albums of” whatever lists in whichever magazine in whichever year, but Springsteen did a lot of things that you’d assume should’ve sunk his career.
After finally breaking through with Born To Run in 1975, circumstances prevented him from releasing another album until 1978, and he chose to go harder and more bitter, and gave everyone Darkness On The Edge Of Town. In 1980 he released a double album, The River, that rather than being bloated and overblown was a collection of sharply written and fervently performed pop songs that heightened his mainstream profile. Surely, then, he would keep that momentum, release another rock album? Not exactly — he put out the dark, primarily acoustic Nebraska instead in 1982. The same went down with Born In The U.S.A. in 1984 and the mellower, more personal Tunnel Of Love in 1987. And so on. When you’re dealing with a retrospective like this for an artist like Bruce Springsteen, it’s hard to find your entry point, to figure out who you’re writing for. It’s harder still when confronted with a recording career spanning four decades that has more twists and turns than are readily apparent.
There have been two narratives in Springsteen’s career that have long interested me. The first is the perpetual pull between romanticism and realism within his career, his shifts between mythologizing and reporting. People have written about this, but I think the borders are more permeable on many of his albums than you’d initially suspect. Where relevant, I try to trace his oscillations between the two modes, in the process trying to figure out what each moment means not only to his career but also to a larger cultural narrative.
The second is the uniqueness of Springsteen’s artistic trajectory. He was a young, rising rock star, with a hot streak that ran from his early twenties to his late thirties. And then, he stopped putting albums out frequently, largely sat out the ’90s, and effectively skipped the middle-aged soul-searching and listlessness of an aging pop star. When Springsteen was fully back on the radar, he was in his fifties and already an elder statesman, a cultural icon, but one who was also (frequently) making new music that people still deemed important. He’s also taken on a kind of second life as a luminary for particular wings of the contemporary indie rock world. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else who has had a career quite like that, though there are a few parallels with Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Particularly for the entries on Springsteen’s ’00s work, I’ve tried to dig into what it means that this has been the shape his career has taken.
With Springsteen’s tour in support of last year’s Wrecking Ball soon drawing to a close, thus ending this chapter of his career, it seems as good a time as any to dig into the rich history of the man’s music. This week also brought the release of the documentary Springsteen & I, making Bruce an even timelier subject. This is a list for Springsteen’s studio recordings. That means all the E Street Band and solo records, the Seeger Sessions album, as well as the collections The Promise and Tracks. I’ve left off live material for multiple reasons, one of which is that a lot of diehard fans will cite certain bootlegs as being superior to any official live release, and that’s just a whole messy world for another list to address. The other is that most fans will tell you that you need to see Springsteen live to fully experience his music, and they’re right — it’ll change your life. I’ll mention how certain songs are translated live, but I’m most concerned with how he’s structured his albums and what their stories are, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on here. For people unfamiliar with Springsteen, I’ve tried to give an overview of his career through the stories of the albums — an admittedly incomplete introduction, but maybe one that will help you find your way into Springsteen’s music. For longtime fans, hopefully I’ll be able to present you with some new ideas. If there’s a contrarian out there who wants to argue the merits of Human Touch, take it to the comments.
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