1. Born To Run (1975)
Bruce Springsteen’s career was in trouble. With neither Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. nor The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle finding the large audience or commercial success that Columbia had hoped for, and with shifts in power dynamics within the company meaning that Springsteen no longer had the same internal support, he was in danger of losing his contract. He was offered a deal: Cut a hit single, and you can record another album. So he wrote “Born To Run.”
It’s almost a thing of myth itself, that story, as was the subsequent recording. Springsteen, always a control freak, fixated on every detail of Born To Run, convinced that he had to create his magnum opus, an undeniably classic rock album, because this would be the last chance he’d ever have to make a record. The obsession shows. Born To Run sounds far more considered than The River or Nebraska or the albums that came before it. There isn’t a second that feels wasted, a sound that doesn’t belong. Everything on Born To Run feels perfectly balanced.
It all starts with that harmonica peel in the beginning of “Thunder Road,” the sound of the curtain getting pulled back and the movie starting. “Thunder Road” isn’t five minutes long, somehow, which doesn’t seem entirely possible. Given its magnitude, you’d think it’d be at least as long as “Rosalita.” This is something Born To Run doesn’t get credit for: Detractors say it’s one of the more overblown Springsteen records, but its epic qualities are impressively economic. “Thunder Road” keeps building, adding this here and there, a vocal getting more emphatic there, and then before you know it you’re at just the 3:50 mark and Springsteen belts his climactic “It’s a town full of losers/ and I’m pulling out of here to win,” and the song segues into its coda. By the end you feel like you’ve had a massive experience, but one that felt earned, not indulgent like so much bloated ’70s rock, and yet it took less than five minutes.
Restraint doesn’t feel like the word for it; no, it seems more appropriate to say that Springsteen just had an insane control over his vision. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Night” provide the catchy, more digestible bits after “Thunder Road,” and then “Backstreets” ends the first side better than most people end whole albums. There shouldn’t be a way to follow that song. I guess it takes a song as assured and ambitious as “Born To Run.” The comparatively lean “Meeting Across The River” (it’s just piano, trumpet, and Bruce) is the quiet but unsettling story, the gasp between the desperate proclamations of “She’s The One” and the epic-to-end-all-epics of “Jungleland.” It all progresses seamlessly. Every song seems to exist not just for its own strengths, not just to build off of its predecessor or toward its successor, but to speak to songs across the record.
That kind of genius meticulousness can lead to brilliance or to overcooked, flat misfires. Born To Run belongs to the former, an album where the control of its emotional ebb and flow makes it all the more evocative. It is littered with moments that still give me chills. The “hiding on the backstreets” refrain of “Backstreets.” The moment where the airy, glistening intro of “She’s The One” drops into it’s thumping Bo Diddley-esque beat. The moment where, after the breakdown in “Born To Run,” Bruce counts off and the band crashes back. That last one’s an obvious one, maybe the others are too, or maybe they’re more specific to me. I feel like people could choose almost any line or part on Born To Run.
As I mentioned before, people often talk about Born To Run as the peak of Springsteen’s romantic era, an assertion compounded by people’s tendency to write about the album as being somewhat mythic itself. I’ve indulged in a bit of both here, though with the former it was mainly a concern of shorthand, because regarding Born To Run as the romantic magnum opus doesn’t feel quite right, even if it’s a worthwhile comparison to what followed. If you listen to Born To Run closely, though, it’s not the sound of someone that believes in the fairytales he’s putting forward, as the Bruce of The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle did. Rather, these are songs of a man who’s pouring everything into these romantic visions one more time — putting everything he had into that one perfect single for “Born To Run” — as reality creeps in through it and threatens to bring the whole thing down. After all, we don’t get through “Thunder Road” before we hear, “You ain’t a beauty, but, hey, you’re all right.” There’s settling, there’s qualification. Even Springsteen knew the dreams weren’t waiting at the end of the highway anymore, but he was going to give it one last shot anyway.
This is different than the relationship I sketched out with Born In The U.S.A. There, that was realism and romanticism interacting in a mature, coming-to-terms-with-life kind of way. That’s not the same thing as this. This is the very beginning of maturation, when reality is starting to creep in but you say, “Just hang on for a little bit, I’ll be with you in a second, but I need to make this last go of it.” Some might argue the best rock music comes from unhinged youthfulness, not realizing or thinking things through. But isn’t this better, to give us a rock album where youth and adulthood are jostling together in a way that, almost four decades later, still provoke a listener to not only lose themselves in its energy and sonic intricacies alike for years, but also to provoke their thinking about the world at large? Isn’t that the best of both worlds?
That’s why it’s Bruce’s best album. That’s why it’s a classic record. There was no way he could continue in this vein. Bruce never sounded like this again, and neither did anyone else.