Thursday, March 31, 2011

Versus: Bruce Springsteen March Madness Round 4

[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.]

Final Round: Nebraska v. The Rising


At this point, the more obvious Springsteen favorites (Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A.) have fallen by the wayside, leaving behind two albums that I think get overlooked in the Bruce canon. That doesn’t necessarily negate the point of Versus, which is the pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll truth or whatever, but I honestly didn’t think I would discuss any of Springsteen’s work post-1984 when I came up with this tournament.

I kind of always knew Nebraska would come up, though. It will probably never be as big as Born to Run, but its influence on indie music has been huge over the last 30 years. It began life as a demo collection of songs for the next E Street Band album. But practices yielded versions that lacked the demo’s haunting, sparse quality. Eventually, Bruce opted to just release the songs as they were, minus “Born in the U.S.A.” The resulting record took elements that had been present in Bruce’s work since at least Born to Run – the darker failings of America – and pushed them to the forefront.

The songs have various energies, but they’re all just different kinds of desperate. “Atlantic City” is the closest thing to a rocker, a strummed out ode to a failing romance. “Highway Patrolman,” “Johnny 99,” and “State Trooper” form a trilogy of bad dealings with the law. Familial strains come up as well, again on “Highway Patrolman,” as well as “Used Cars” and “My Father’s House.” The closest thing to uplift comes on the concluding track, “Reason to Believe.” Over a bluesy riff, Bruce is confronted with a litany of disturbing images and realizes that faith is meant to placate. It’s a stark conclusion to a stark record.

Nebraska gets by on minimalism and good lyrics. It also birthed a new genre, lo-fi. By utilizing lower fidelity, artists can create a haze for listeners to get lost in. Monster movies are more effective when the creature is hidden, a la Jaws or The Thing, and the same could be said of lo-fi. The tones implied are just as important as the ones heard. Springsteen has tried a few times to recreate Nebraska’s indie-folk, with mixed results, but it truly is a one-of-a-kind record in his discography.

The Rising is, in some ways, Nebraska’s opposite. It’s like 15 tracks’ worth of “Reason to Believe.” Released nine years ago (Holy shit) just after 9/11, the record is loaded with hope and rumination. While some of the songs date back to the late ’90s, The Rising took on an instant political context. Springsteen was one of America’s great rock heroes in the ’70s and ’80s, and here he was, back again to comfort us and prop the country back up.

Now that 9/11 is nearly a decade behind us (Holy shit 2x), I can listen to Rising without the political pull and just hear a solid collection of songs about getting better. Plenty of Bruce albums mix joy and desperation. Nebraska tipped towards the desperate; Rising is like the day after, the realization that the past is done and the future can still be glorious. It acknowledges hard times, but it’s still a midtempo party record, thanks to tunes like “Lonesome Day” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” Clarence “Big Man” Clemons provides fun sax solos while Bruce chimes in with goofy platitudes. One of the songs is straight up called “Let’s Be Friends.” This is a beers ‘n’ brats record.

The album deals with religious imagery at times, beautifully so on “Mary’s Place” and “My City of Ruins.” In fact, “Mary’s Place” might be one of the best Bruce songs of all time. I’d put it up against “Thunder Road” or “Rosalita” any day. That song just builds and builds to this epically huge chorus. It simmers on the bridge before exploding one final time. If you’ve seen it performed live, you know “Mary’s Place” drives the crowds crazy.

But what ultimately gives Nebraska the edge of Rising is consistency. Nebraska is fat-free. The Rising was Bruce’s comeback album, his first release of all new material since 1994’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, and while I can see the appeal in getting 72 minutes of new music, it just doesn’t need to be that long. Maybe if it had been trimmed to 10 tracks, like Nebraska, this would be a harder decision, but The Rising does not need to be 15 songs deep. No one needed the world music via Sting-ism of "Worlds Apart;" cutting that song along would save six minutes.

The clear winner in this round and this tournament is Nebraska, a subtle acoustic record that has lost none of its power. It’s the least representative of Bruce’s overall sound, but it’s the best.

[For Michael. I’m sorry Darkness got knocked out in the first round.]

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