Rank The Albums is an occasional series in which we try to put an artist or band's output in order of quality. Following Led Zep, Radiohead and Nirvana, Boss obsessive Mark Beaumont does the honours on Springsteen's career.
The opening harmonica wailed of small-town discontent, the pounding piano chords that instantly followed spoke of hope and escape. And so the tone for Springsteen’s masterpiece was set: from ‘Thunder Road’ to ‘Born To Run’ to the epic ‘Jungleland’, this was all thrumming engines and birds being flicked at parents from eloping motorbikes.
To this day it oozes the rampant impetuosity of youth – you know, like when you really have to go inter-railing – in every bellow of Bruce belligerence, every proud piano crescendo and every blare of Clarence’s sax. Just try to forget it ever invented ‘Bat Out Of Hell’.
At the polar opposite of Springsteen’s ouvre from the ballsy bluster of ‘Born To Run’ sits the solo four-track wonder that is ‘Nebraska’, recorded at home surrounded by the ghosts of its cold-hearted, hopeless and desperate inhabitants – the crushed killer ‘Johnny 99’ pleading for death row, the ‘Highway Patrolman’ lamenting his fatally wayward brother, the blue collar shame of the family forced to drive around in ‘Used Cars’. This was stark and devastating modern folklore, delivered with a crushing intimacy, and the closest most of us will ever come to knowing what it’s like to hack the phones of murder victims’ families.
At some point in every Rate The Albums list, objectivity must inevitably collapse as that first flush of excitement about discovering an artist drenches one of their (supposedly) less worthy records in added significance.
I call it The ‘Out Of Time’ Effect and for me, with Bruce, it comes with the flag-mocking, Courtney Cox-smooching ‘Born In The USA’. Considered mid-table at best by purists offended by its 15 million-flogging populism, it was the main entry point to Springsteen’s canon for me and approximately 11 million other people. That, plus the fact it’s rammed with classics: ‘No Surrender’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’, ‘Glory Days’ and a load of songs that were originally demoed for ‘Nebraska’, so don’t go claiming you weren’t just put off by the production, Boss snobs!
So you’ve roared off down Thunder Road with Mary on the back, your whole life in your saddle-bags and your eyes on Forever. Then you get to Forever, and it’s a shitty little town like the last place, only everyone’s a bastard, the factory’s sucking your soul dry and you can’t even go stay with your parents until you can get a foothold in telesales. Welcome to the ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’, a brutal wake-up call to adulthood full of paranoia, anger and despondency, ‘Born To Run’’s unhappily-ever-after that turns the air-punching sax-rock rebellion to a – by turns - maudlin and furious bent.
Virtually a double-album preview of his forthcoming 80s output, ‘The River’ ran the gamut from bar-room rock bawls like ‘Two Hearts’, ‘The Ties That Bind’ and ‘Hungry Heart’ to fragile folk tales of little lives made emotionally epic – ‘Independence Day’, ‘The River’, ‘Stolen Car’. And all of it toasted dry with a new wave crackle and dusted with dashes of Bowie glam punk. It would be Number One, if not for the anticlimactic second half.
The slickness of ‘Born In The USA’ bled into the downbeat moods and storytelling nous of ‘Nebraska’ to produce the perfect fusion in the candy-coated Springsheen of ‘Tunnel Of Love’, largely lacking the raw power and passion of his 70s material but melodically immaculate. It was mostly about his break-up with actress Julianne Phillips, whether through characterisation (the doomed couple of ‘Spare Parts’) or the direct betrayals of ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and ‘Two Faces’. There’ve been fewer more satisfying splits in popular culture, bar Katy Perry dumping Russell Brand.
Deep into his anti-Bush era, ‘Magic’ is the choice cut of Bruce’s 21st Century output thanks to a) a less overt political slant and b) a frankly cracking slew of tracks that spun boldly away from Springsteen’s traditional blue collar rock and plaintive country folk tales. The production – by Bruce’s new song-writing partner Brendan O’Brien - stinks of money and maturity, but there’s no denying the, ahem, magic of ‘Radio Nowhere’ and ‘You’ll Be Coming Down’ or the redemptive pop charm of ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’, which could be a high-gloss Magnetic Fields. Yup, that brilliant.
A guy at a stop light leans over to Bruce’s car in the wake of 9/11 and says “we need you now”. Cue a career rejuvenation after an aimless 90s, as Bruce found new purpose as the Voice Of America. If the Statue Of Liberty could talk, it might’ve made a record like ‘The Rising’ in 2002 – a 70-minute opus of stories about people affected by 9/11, from the desperate victims to the firefighters turned reluctant heroes to the confused families dealing with the tragedy the best they could – in ‘Mary’s Place’ the bereaved even try to dance away the agony by throwing a party. Shock, confusion and loss were the bedrock of ‘The Rising’, but the album was intended as part of the healing process, plucking glimmers of strength and optimism from the rubble and polishing them to a gleam.
An updated State Of The Nation address in the vein of ‘The Rising’, but this time Bruce tackles the modern American dilemma in the wake of Hurricane Dubya: an economy crushed, communities demolished, the livelihoods of the hard-working common man being spluttered away by selfish, greedy bankers like so much coke across a hooker’s tits. Sure, Bruce Getting Political adds to the significance of the record, but it still contains some of Springsteen’s catchiest (‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ could have been ripped off The Lightning Seed’s ‘The Life Of Riley’, ferchrissake) and most enormous (‘Wrecking Ball’, the huge gospel ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ and the actually-narrated-by-dancing-corpses ‘We Are Alive’) tunes yet.
Before the power rock, the funk. The E Street Band swung along far more soulful alleyways in the early 70s, back when Bruce sounded like Bob Dylan fronting Funkadelic (on ‘The E Street Shuffle’) or Van Morrison’s The Band (on classic ballad ‘4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’, on which The Thrills based an entire career).
A very urban ‘groove’, the record slunk around bumping fists with colourful characters of Harlem called things like Spanish Johnny, Jack Knife and Big Pretty rather than dissected the detritus of the New Jersey truck stops and, beside the odd interminable jazz-out, oozed a sassy street poetry and warm hints of C&W psychedelia. Listen very, very closely, and you can actually hear The Hold Steady being born during ‘Incident On 57th Street’.
So that's the top ten. As for the rest...
The thin but rousing debut dotted with Dylan-esque favourites such as ‘It’s Hard To be A Saint In The City’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’, made (in)famous by prog divots Manfred Mann’s Earth Band.
The new ‘Nebraska’, they said. Not as good as the old ‘Nebraska’, we said back.
The new ‘Magic’, they said. Not as good as… oh, y’know.
Made up largely of cast-offs from previous albums and tracks he’d given away, and it showed.
Bruce’s own ‘Use Your Illusion’ and a textbook case of the two-albums-out-at-once-christ-I’m-so-prolific-see-how-I-flatulate-classics folly from an artist who, at the time, had enough decent material for an EP. At a push, go for the rockier ‘Lucky Town’ over the folkier ‘Human Touch’, but better still, raid Wikipedia and delete all historical evidence that these ever came out.
An impressive and worthy project, but full of trad folk songs initially covered by rootsy folkie Pete Seeger. And frankly, we needed one of those like we needed a hole in the balls.
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