Retrospective: Bruce Springsteen

They don't make performers like Bruce Springsteen any more. The man billed by his loyal legions of fans as The Boss has spent the last forty years playing gigs that are so long, he has almost become a parody of himself. Whilst Springsteen's mammoth gigs may have been a constant of his career, his sound and relevance to varying audiences has constantly changed. That’s perhaps what makes him the artist so loyally loved in 2014.

Those not completely familiar with Bruce Springsteen will give you one of two reactions when you mention his name. Springsteen's sound will either be dismissed with, “I'm not really into that macho stuff,” or the person you are talking to will acknowledge a giant of stadium rock in the same ilk as Bryan Adams and Jon Bon Jovi. If you were to play people like this large chunks of Springsteen's first two albums, they would be quickly confounded - both of these albums are jazz and blues orientated. There are moments on these albums where Springsteen does still produce the huge stadium sound that he’s famed for: tracks such as “Rosalita” and “Lost in The Flood” combine the jazz basis of the album with an unmistakably Springsteen stadium feel. Whilst Springsteen would never create any albums as jazz orientated as his first two albums again, these roots are still a fundamental part of his identity and have been an integral part of his E Street Band's sound ever since.

The foundations of the stadium rock that Springsteen is now famed for had been laid, but they weren't truly discovered until his third album, 1975's Born to Run. After critical acclaim, but very little commercial success on his first two albums, Springsteen finally added the latter to his repertoire. Over thirty nine minutes, the face of rock music and American culture were changed forever. The album is fast paced and faultless; whilst the title track has been parodied by Jimmy Fallon; and Sesame Street have done their own take on the cover art.

Legal battles with his former manager and overwhelming pressure to create Born to Run part 2 meant Springsteen didn't release another album until 1978. Recording Darkness on the Edge of Town was a drawn out process, but he refined the stadium sound of Born to Run in order to create a raging masterpiece. There were some positive songs pencilled in to feature on Darkness…, such as “Fire” or “Because the Night”, but Springsteen decided to have anger and sadness bubbling under every track. The lyrics were powerful and the strongest attribute of this record, but the instrumentation on this album was almost as impressive and made for his heaviest album until 2014.

It was the 1980s that made this son of New Jersey the legend he is widely regarded as nowadays. Whilst he didn't release any albums that had the universal adoration of Born to Run or Darkness…, he released four albums of varying sound, but all of exceptional quality. In 1980, he released The River, which consists of two discs of relentlessly superb Americana designed for massive stadium shows. Springsteen's other stadium album from this decade is also his most commercially successful, 1984's Born in the U.S.A. It is the Springsteen album that is easiest to just pick up and listen to just because it consists of twelve tracks of indiscriminately brilliant rock music: from the often misunderstood anti-war title track to “Dancing In The Dark”, which he wrote when told by his manager to "go and write a f**king hit single". He certainly did.

There could not be more of a contrast between the stadium shaking sound of these two albums and Nebraska, which was released in between them. Nebraska is Springsteen's most curious album: there was no E Street Band - just Springsteen, his guitar and the occasional harmonica recorded on a 4 track cassette recorded. Nebraska was originally intended to be a standard Springsteen album, with the E Street Band in tow, but after recording both the demos on 4 track cassette and full band studio versions, he felt that the lyrics were too morbid for the cheerful music that the E Street Band were putting to it. He therefore released the cassette recordings. The result is a chilling album, which skirts around capital punishment (“Johnny 99”) and Springsteen's poor relationship with his father (“My Father's House”).

Just to complete the variety of albums from The Boss in the 1980s, in 1987 he released Tunnel of Love, which is more A-ha than Americana. The record is driven by synth and drum machines, but still has that underlying big sound of a Bruce Springsteen record. This album was written whilst Springsteen was in the midst of a divorce; and the idea of heartbreak and perfect romance going sour is regularly touched on throughout the album. So yes, by the end of the 1980s, you could tick off the following for bases covered by Bruce Springsteen & his E Street Band: jazz, hard rock, Americana, pop music, acoustic, synth and heartbreak.

It would do Springsteen a disservice to dwell on the 1990s too much. He had cut himself adrift of the E Street Band and he was at his lowest point both commercially and critically. He now pragmatically reflects on 1992's Human Touch and Lucky TownI tried writing happy songs in the early '90s and it didn't work - the public didn't like it.” This was followed up by the impressive, if low key The Ghost of Tom Joad. On this album, Springsteen opted for a similar stripped back approach to what he delivered on Nebraska and toured comparatively small venues, rather than stadiums.

By the turn of the millennium you would have been forgiven for thinking that Tom Joad was Springsteen's curtain call, but in 2002 he returned - E Street Band in tow - with The Rising. At this time, America's morale was at a low point in the aftermath of 9/11 and The Rising almost solely comprises of uplifting songs about the strength of human character in adversity. Springsteen had always been a masterful story teller; he had sung as everyone from love struck youngsters to mass murderers and delivered believable narratives. However, on The Rising his story telling reached a new peak as he perfectly captured the mood of an entire nation and inspired hope and optimism five years before Barack Obama even invented these concepts.

The Springsteen of the twenty first century seems to be one, who is conscious of the finitude of life; in the last five years both organ player Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence 'Big Man' Clemons have passed away. This seems to give have given Springsteen a new impetus to release as much music and continue pleasing his audience for as long as possible - he has released five albums between 2005 and 2012. Furthermore the music released over this time has been of a high quality as well: he's not likely to settle into the MOTR rhythm that many musicians of his age have. The Boss showed he still has his political edge on The Seeger Sessions, which was an album of covers of legendary protest singer Pete Seeger. Whilst his 2012 album, Wrecking Ball was one of his strongest since the 1980s and has just been ruined of late by Miley Cyrus' track of the same name.

Such is Springsteen's appeal that hundreds of high profile musicians from across the world join the E Street Band on live shows - just take the recent appearances of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder as an example. The guest appearance of Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello two years ago has resulted in The Boss' new album, High Hopes. The E Street Band was inspired enough by Morello joining them for a leg of the tour to record an album alongside him. This album finds Springsteen at his heaviest: he most notably takes his 1995 acoustic camp fire song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and, with the help of Morello, transforms the song into a sprawling hard rock epic.

Over his forty year career, Springsteen has toyed with a vast amount of sounds and has delivered the same high quality with remarkable consistency across all of these genres. It is this that makes his live shows of 2014 most impressive - over a marathon show, you are likely to hear songs made for stadiums from nigh on every genre in Springsteen's book. With such a vast back catalogue, it might seem intimidating to just set about listening to Springsteen's music. Yet once you have been to one of his live shows, as a result of listening to his music, you will have no regrets about discovering one of the most remarkable musicians of the last fifty years.


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