Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Versus: Bruce Springsteen March Madness Round 3

[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 3, Bracket 1

  1. Born to Run v. Nebraska

Here we find perhaps Bruce’s sound best distilled into two different styles: The joyous, thunderous glee of The E Street Band on Born to Run and the stark, acoustic minimalism of Nebraska. I’m generalizing, of course, but when I originally thought about doing a Versus on Springsteen, these two albums first came to mind. Born to Run is perhaps the most classic of Bruce’s classic albums. Born in the U.S.A. sold more, but if you’re looking for a single record that best encapsulates all of Bruce’s influences – top 40 ’60s pop, ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, noir movies – this is the record to buy. It’s the best introduction, it’s filler-free, and it’s got the best saxophone parts from Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. From “Thunder Road” to “Jungleland,” Springsteen paints a series of vignettes about love, loss, and cars, and while being stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. This is how you shut up detractors.

But once you’ve absorbed Born to Run, where do you go from there? Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is a little more fun and Darkness on the Edge of Town is a little heavier. But Nebraska is the only record Bruce ever tried to remake (Although I guess you could argue that Human Touch and Lucky Town were a River retread). Most of Bruce’s albums were homages to his favorite styles. With Nebraska, he invented one of his own, lo-fi. Lo-fi is marked by low fidelity recording quality, which lends songs a hazy atmosphere. It forces listeners to imagine more about what’s going on, creating sounds that aren’t there. It’s like keeping a monster in the darkness: More effective. Born to Run is stuffed with instrumentation, but it’s the same listen every time. Nebraska constantly shifts its shape, lending already amazing songs like “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99” an extra enticing quality. At this point in the tournament, there are no real losers, but let’s be clear: Born to Run is a great record. Nebraska is a better.

Winner: Nebraska

Round 3, Bracket 2

  1. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. v. The Rising

is a party starter. It’s a euphoric romper-stomper that rarely lets up. Even when it does, it’s for emotionally resonant stuff like “For You.” Propelled by Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s loose, kinetic style, the songs are a little sloppy, but in a good way. The songs are played with conviction, and that’s what sells the record. Springsteen was still finding his voice as a songwriter, but as a singer he was already world-class.

Much like Born in the U.S.A. last week, The Rising has Greetings outgunned in terms of lyrics (and production quality too). Greetings is certainly catchy, but it’s also the sound of Springsteen before he got any real life experience. The tunes aren’t really about anything. Oh sure, some are about love or death, but in a vague sense. Rising, meanwhile, was an extended hand to help the country out post-9/11. The songs didn’t start out that way, but by the time the record was released in 2002, The Rising became something else: A call to hope. From “Lonesome Day” to “My City of Ruins,” the record acknowledges that hard times have come and will come again, but it finds a peace through determination.

The Rising isn’t just about big issues either. Some of the songs are out-and-out fun. I’ve seen people lose their shit for “Mary’s Place,” a six-minute epic about, well, having a party, just as much as they do for “Rosalita.” With just that one song, Bruce takes everything he did on Greetings and betters it. “Mary’s Place” packs a huge hook second only to that build-up of a bridge. The lyrics provide respite from all the chaos going on in the world, blending religious imagery with a reminder that we’re still alive. Greetings is fun, but it comes off as a little empty compared to Rising.

Winner: The Rising

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