Six definitive songs: The ultimate guide to Bruce Springsteen
The American Dream wasn’t something Bruce Springsteen could easily obtain.
So, through his 46+ year musical career, he wielded his song-writing which acted like a weapon with which to carve his own. His New Jersey, working class roots enhance every bit of his much-revered brand of lyrical storytelling. For music fans everywhere, Bruce created the real voice of Heartland America.
A long time may have passed since we were first introduced to Springsteen but The Boss is still touring, still writing records, and up until December 2018 will be performing five nights a week on Broadway, NYC in his own show.
How does he do it? What’s his appeal? We’re pointing you to the definitive tracks to act as a guide to Bruce’s comprehensive work. All to determine just how important the ‘Soul of America’s’ music legacy actually is.
‘Thunder Road’ – Born to Run, 1975
In the early seventies, he fronted bands such as Steel Mill and The Castiles where he played in tiny village halls and large music festivals, traipsing all over America. By 1973 his debut Greetings from Asbury Park never truly aligned with his destiny. The brand of acoustic-folk was too familiar to that of artists like Van Morrison who at this point were untouchable. But touring for a lengthy time and then cutting that first record would help him hone his craft. 1975 would be his year when to follow up Born To Run, was released and Bruce’s world irrevocably changed.
The defining opener of that record ‘Thunder Road’ chronicles a story that had been yearning to be told by only one man. Defined by the protagonist rebel couple ‘with one last chance to make it real’ It’s a rollicking, no guts no glory, call to arms. As engaging as it is optimistic, the powerful and bright driving piano and sax tones carry the track. Fitting that it should kick off an album with his strongest selection of songs.
Figuring out how to make, record and create a body of work like ‘Born to Run’ was intrinsic to Springsteen’s career. It transformed everyday stories of hardworking Americans longing for something more into something tangible that everyone could touch. Never resting on his laurels, he steps up the human nature stories one notch higher with on his next effort.
‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ – Darkness AT The Edge of Town, 1978
The yearning heartbreak in his vocal is pushed to the background and now were shown an angsty punk element to his voice. When this record was released in 1978, punk was still in its infancy (in America it certainly was) and although Bruce didn’t wear punk as a statement he did take inspiration from it.
‘Darkness On The Edge…’ central theme is that spiky punk energy.
It crystallises the dynamics of each character in his lyrics. Essentially, he was becoming more complex in different areas. Always remembered by that breaking chorus with the drums and throaty vocals feeling like pure rage — more appealing than his Eddie Cochran style ‘C’mon Everybody’ rallying cry found on the chorus of Born In The USA — which I’m omitting because I’m a heathen.
Now with rage comes redemption. Something Bob Marley was uniquely fascinated in too.
‘The River’ – The River, 1980
A glorious harmonica mournfully opens the song like a funeral dirge and that lush 12-string guitar is so supremely elegant, especially when underpinning the melody of the piano.
However, will there be a fitting resolution to Bruce’s captivating characters here like in so many other cases? It’s well documented Bruce uses fictional characters in his songs however in ‘The River’ the teenage couple are drawn from his own experiences. In particular his sister’s. Each verse changes just like a river swaying from poignancy to the revealing metaphor that the river is where it all begins to unravel.
The struggle is poignant, and the mood is sombre. That matter of fact delivery which tries to differentiate between love and loss is wonderfully told. Easily, one of his best compositions.
‘Atlantic City’ – Nebraska, 1982
In the eighties, it felt like everything was moving at great speed. Fashion, culture art etc was picking up pace. Time now to perhaps take a step back after his 140-show tour of The River and create an album of songs with no political statement.
Nebraska is Bruce’s folk-rock opus, while a reflective theme strings these emotive songs together, ‘Atlantic City’ shows strengths within Bruce which were potentially fraying. The fading glory and lonely ideals are bread and butter to his writing but Nebraska compliments a wiser and more mature style to his work. His passion is still shown on his sleeve.
“Everything that dies someday comes back.”
‘Streets of Philadelphia’ – Streets of Philadelphia: From The Motion Picture, 1994
‘Streets Of Philadelphia’ begins with a definitive anthemic sound which underpinned everything in the nineties.
Not every ‘old rocker’ made it this far with their dignity intact (Jagger, I’m looking in your direction). Instead of relishing in the decadence, this era brought Bruce goes all minimal and can focus on what is reassuring to him.
It feels slightly short, but this is a representation of how crafting precise elements from his arsenal can establish him as one of the most gifted songwriters.
It won an Oscar in 1994 for Best Original Song and rightly so. His timing is measured, and his relaying of memories are sharper than ever.
‘Radio Nowhere’ – Magic, 2007
I find Magic is Bruce Springsteen’s best modern collection of songs.
The production is tight, and his lyrics are slightly less politically charged. On 2002’s The Rising he was delivering a message mainly about America post 9/11 and that is very courageous for any musician to be able to do that, specifically about your own nation. ‘Radio Nowhere’ is a perfect pop single.
A story on one hand about the good ol’ fashioned days of listening to AM radios, and on the other an urgent call to hear something decent on it in the modern age. He has a point.
Magic has a distinct old-fashioned rocking quality. And I wonder if he was trying to illicit some scorn towards fellow compatriots Kings Of Leon and the like? You must give him some credit he has been making plenty of noise up and down those charts, in and out of bars and dancehalls, since the seventies. With still has no signs of slowing down.
Bruce Springsteen wrote more words in some individual songs than other artists have in whole albums. Those tough as old boots American roots taught him everything he knows and his belief in human nature will be what defines him.
His recognition shouldn’t come from his background instead it should come from how American culture has adopted his voice and courage, has a backbone and is all the stronger for it. So, not a definitive list but useful enough to salute your own red and white and blue even if you weren’t Born In The USA…