Monday, March 14, 2011

Versus: Bruce Springsteen March Madness Round 2

[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This month, Versus is hosting a March Madness/Mortal Kombat tournament of Bruce Springsteen's 16 finest studio albums.]

Round 2, Bracket 1

  1. Tracks v. Born to Run

has a wealth of secret Springsteen material and takes a long time to fully digest. There’s B-sides and unreleased alternate versions galore. The Nebraska version of “Born in the U.S.A.” is chilling, while tunes like “Dollhouse,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” and “Thundercrack” are among his catchiest, so much so that it’s crazy that these tunes never made it onto a proper album before 1998. That said, Tracks eats shit on its fourth disc, which covers Bruce’s fallow ’90s period. For proof, check out “Part Man, Part Monkey,” a reggae/bar band hybrid that kills all the good times the first three discs cultivate (And yet somehow fans actually requested this when I saw Bruce at Hersheypark Stadium!). Tracks is good, but it ain’t perfect.

But you know what is perfect? Born to Run. Eight songs. No filler. No reggae bullshit. The record practically plays like a greatest hits package on to itself, from the opening swells of “Thunder Road” to the closing piano lines of “Jungeland.” A concept album about being young, in love, and broke, Run is an untouchable rock record. When people tell me they hate Bruce, I bide my time until I can casually quote a line or two from Run. Sooner or later they come around on the Boss’ poetry and realize there’s more to him than just “Glory Days.”

Winner: Born to Run

  1. Devils & Dust v. Nebraska

Devils & Dust
is a fine display of Bruce’s political and religious imagery, but musically, it’s a Nebraska retread. What’s funny is that Nebraska didn’t even sell that well when it came out in 1982. Granted, it went gold, but The River went quintuple times platinum. Born in the U.S.A. went 15x platinum. Nebraska is a cult record by comparison, albeit a mainstream, critically successful. Which is probably why Springsteen has attempted recreating it a couple of times, first with The Ghost of Tom Joad and then with Devils & Dust. Those records are good, but they can’t touch the raw feeling one gets from Nebraska. The lyrics are among Springsteen’s darkest, which the grainy, lo-fi recording quality aids. Darkness on the Edge of Town at least had “Prove It All Night;” Nebraska’s lone source of hope is that, through all the shit its characters endure, they must persevere simply because there are no alternatives. Joad and Devils are sparse albums, but they still come off as overproduced by comparison. Nebraska started off as demos, but Bruce realized that the songs sounded perfect as they were. None of his other acoustic albums can claim that.

Winner: Nebraska

Round 2, Bracket 2

  1. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. v. Born in the U.S.A.

U.S.A. was a huge record for Bruce. Hell, it was big for the ’80s in general, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Prince’s Purple Rain. Yeah, it’s a little cheesy in places, but it deserved those big numbers. The record was honest and heartfelt as always, but it focused Bruce’s blue collar perspective into these tight pop gems like “No Surrender” and “My Hometown.” It’s also one of the few political records that broke into the mainstream. Hip-hop and hardcore were too underground at the time to take the U.S. government to task the way “Born in the U.S.A.” did. When President Ronald Reagan tried co-opting the song for re-election, only to find out that the song is actually an indictment of the U.S. government and its handling of the Vietnam War, it made the song all the more powerful, as if to say, “These dumb fucks really don’t get it.”

Born in the U.S.A. has the edge on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. lyrically. U.S.A. is focused and makes big statements. Greetings is more of a nonsensical party record. Springsteen was once dubbed “the New Dylan,” and in a way Greetings is his most Dylan-esque record lyrically. The words just kind of flow out and fill space. The choruses usually give the songs a purpose (“For You,” “Growin’ Up”) while the verses meander. Question: What is a “Go-kart Mozart?” Still, the songs pack resonance. Part of the power of Springsteen’s words comes from how he says them, and that’s especially true of Greetings. He delivers each song with energy and emotion. On top of that, these tunes are fun. U.S.A. may be more important on a soci-political scale, but musically it just can’t top “Blinded By the Light” or “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” It’s a fun listen, and that goes a long way.

Winner: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

  1. Magic v. The Rising

When Magic came out, all I could do was compare it to The Rising, so this seems appropriate. Rising arrived just when it was needed. It had been a while since Springsteen soothed Americans’ collective conscience, but here he was after 9/11 to remind us that life does and must go on. Truthfully, most of Rising was written before 9/11, but the themes Springsteen dealt with – failure and redemption – were so universal that it took on an instant context anyway. Magic was the belated E Street sequel after Bruce explored folk music on Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and I tend to judge the two as a piece anyway. Magic ultimately can’t compete with Rising on any level. Yeah, it’s got some good rockers like “Radio Nowhere,” but it’s all over the place stylistically, as if Bruce was trying to sum up his entire discography through “Livin’ in the Future” and “Terry’s Song.” It doesn’t comment on the times quite as well as Rising does, but then again Magic still took heat from conservative fans, so maybe Bruce applied just the right amount of political protest. Still, it’s too glossy and unfocused, whereas Rising has a warm sound and plenty of pep.

Winner: The Rising

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