I’ve lived with the new Springsteen album for about a week, while recuperating at home from an illness. In fact, my illness prevented me from going out and picking up the record on opening day. Many thanks to my brother-in-law for picking it up during the first week–and helping Bruce to his 11th #1 rated Billboard album.
This is an interesting and difficult record–more of a Bruce buffet than a classic Springsteen epic–an “odds and sods” collection of cover songs, studio versions of familiar songs from E Street Band live performances and a final letting go of some songs that missed the cut for prior albums (especially the Rising.) This album calls Bruce fans’ bluff: were we serious when we said that we wished Bruce put out more material or are we willing to wait for albums only after painstaking production and careful sequencing that results in good songs being left on the cutting room floor?
It’s clear where Bruce is headed. The deaths of Clarence and Danny heightened his awareness that time passes surely and swiftly. In Bruce’s recent NPR interview with Ann Powers he explained his frequent reference to the image of the light at the end of the tunnel when describing his career:
It’s like, hey man, no one knows what tomorrow brings. That is the only thing I know. And once you’re my age, there’s quite a few folks missing already, alright? And from 50 on out it only increases as time passes by . . .
It’s just like you reach a certain part of your life and it becomes a part of your life. I lived with Clarence for the last decade and he struggled to get along. And Danny also. It’s just a part of the day and so I always, I use that image as motivation for sort of, I’m a bit more interested in working.
I’m on board with this, so I will be pointing out the nuggets of interest and letting the rest disappear: you know, like the rare misfires such as the “goin’ cali” fourth disc of Tracks or the Human Touch album. The price we pay to hear more Bruce is wading through some less than stellar stuff.
High Hopes–the cover of the 1999 tune by LA alt.country rockers The Havalinas was first released by Bruce in 1996 as part of an EP that came with the VHS tape “Blood Brothers”, a backstage look at the additional recordings made for the Greatest Hits album. This version rocks harder and is much better–lots of horns and Tom Morello’s guitar.
Down In The Hole–a meditation on 9/11 that didn’t make The Rising. Beautiful organ from Danny and sax from Clarence backs up lovely vocals from the entire Springsteen family–dad, mom and all three children (when they were quite young.) Patti’s harmonies shine.
Frankie Fell In Love–a type of song that used to be quite common for Bruce–the good-time, silly love song.
Einstein and Shakespeare, sittin’ having a beer/ Einstein tryin’ to figure out the number that adds up to bliss/ Shakespeare says “Man, it all starts with a kiss. Einstein is scratchin’ numbers on his pad/ Shakespeare says “Man, it’s just one and one make three/ That’s why it’s poetry.”
Hunter of Invisible Game–love in a post-apocalyptic future? The concept sounds grim–but the touch is deft and without gimmickry. The strings are the stars, with minimal ESB participation. And the song has one of the most stunningly romantic lyrics Bruce has ever written:
Strength is vanity and time is illusion/ I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion/ Your skin touches mine, what else to explain/ I am the hunter of invisible game.
The Ghost of Tom Joad–a folky lament is transformed and allowed to rage against the machine, courtesy of Tom Morello’s pyrotechnic guitar. Worth the price of admission all by itself.
The Wall–No one has written so eloquently about veterans as Bruce–and this may be his best yet. Bruce’s voice with acoustic guitar gradually yields to more keyboards and percussion. It is capped by the lovely coronet work of Curt Ramm. The liner notes explain Bruce’s personal connection to the suffering of veterans and the families of those who didn’t make it home, the loss in Vietnam of an early musical mentor Walter Cichon of a Jersey shore band called The Motifs.
Dream Baby Dream–Bruce’s idiosyncratic take on the song by 70’s punk duo Suicide has been done in concert before, usually Bruce solo playing a harmonium. This version fleshes that sound out with piano, guitar, synth, strings–but all understated and only serving to highlight Bruce and his vocal. Hypnotic and beautiful.