Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Bruce Springsteen Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973, Columbia)

A

Sure, you can make a valid claim that this debut disc from The Boss is fairly atypical of any of the discs that would follow it. Certainly, Springsteen’s songwriting here is a far cry from that of The River or Born in the U.S.A. and more resembles mid-’60s Dylan in its sheer wordiness and occasionally stream-of-consciousness-like lyrics while the music is less akin to the arena-sized-rock of Bruce’s later years than it is to Moondance-and-Street Choir-era Van Morrison. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that there are still some very, very good songs here, and they’re not as uncommercial as they might seem on paper: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, after all, would have their first and only chart-topper with a cover of this disc’s “Blinded by the Light” and score a second Top 40 hit with a cover of “Spirit in the Night.” And while Bruce’s sound and songwriting style would ultimately change, he’s still got no shortage of personality and charisma here to help mask the weaker cuts – not that there are all that many weak cuts here. Aside from the two aforementioned future Manfred Mann hits, you’ve also got an additional handful of classics in cuts like “Growin’ Up,” the acoustic rocker “For You,” and the well-placed closer “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.”  

The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973, Columbia)

A +

There’s a slight hint of jazz underpinning this sophomore disc, and, indeed, Bruce and his band really stretch out here, the disc consisting of just seven cuts, four of which extend beyond the seven-minute mark. Not surprisingly, nothing here seems like especially obvious radio fare, though both the slithery soul of the clavinet-heavy opener “The E Street Shuffle” and the classic, accordion-laced ballad “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” are fairly catchy (the Hollies even covering the latter song the following year), and it’s easy to see why this disc didn’t do anything to reverse Springsteen’s absence on the singles charts. Though more casual fans of Bruce’s likely won’t recognize many, if any, of the tunes here, this is nonetheless one of the most masterful albums The Boss has ever made, and it’s also incredibly well-sequenced, particularly on its second side, which has all three cuts seamlessly stitched together as one big piece that closes with the sweeping ten-minute epic “New York City Serenade.” Besides the aforementioned “4th of July, Asbury Park,” this disc is also where you’ll find the studio version of the concert classic “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” as well as the near-freeform, piano-driven “Incident on 57th Street” and the jazzy rocker “Kitty’s Back,” which sounds like an intoxicating fusion of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Santana, and Gary U.S. Bonds. Whether or not this is Bruce’s best album is certainly up to debate, but one’s thing for sure: it’s one of his most daring, and rarely has Bruce ever sounded quite as utterly cinematic as he does here. 

Born to Run (1975, Columbia)

A +  

The album that both catapulted Springsteen into superstardom and also gave birth to what has become the signature sound of the rocker and his indispensable backup crew, The E Street Band, there have been some lineup changes since the last disc: David Sancious has been replaced on keyboards with Roy Bittan, while Vini Lopez has been replaced by the mighty Max Weinberg on drums. They’re great personnel changes, since it’s highly debatable if Sancious and Carter could have played this material nearly as well (especially the former, who was a perfect fit for the jazzier, more experimental material of the first two discs but isn’t quite as suited as Bittan is for the more arena-rock-oriented sound of this disc and its follow-ups.) As for the material itself, this disc would probably still be a classic even if the only decent song here were the dramatic, powerful, Phil Spector-like title cut, which is a very serious contender for the title of the greatest rock-and-roll song ever written and certainly contains one of the most unforgettable count-ins in rock history, the passionate count-in that introduces the final verse every bit as iconic as Paul McCartney’s at the beginning of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” But the disc is so, so much more than just its classic title cut, and you’ve also got one of the greatest opening cuts in all of rock history, “Thunder Road,” with its unforgettable introductory verse quoting Roy Orbison, as well as one of rock’s most epic-sized closers, the near-ten-minute-long “Jungleland.” In between, you’ve got smaller-scale epics like the organ-drenched “Backstreets” and some good old-fashioned rock-and-roll in the soulful, catchy “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which sounds like a fusion of the Springsteen lyrical equivalent of “Creeque Alley” to a Wilson Pickett-worthy rhythm track. Every bit as ambitious a disc as its two predecessors, Born to Run bests Bruce’s previous work by not simply rocking with even more force but because of the sheer assuredness Bruce brings to the table this time: he’s written great songs before, but there was an ever-so-slight tentativeness in his performances in the past and he’d still yet to fully find his own voice as a songwriter, provoking constant Dylan comparisons.  Here, Springsteen frees himself to bring more of his own personality into the mix and he sings with greater authority and confidence than ever before as well, as if to say to the listener, “Believe the hype.” It may not be his first album or even his first great album (he’d already made two of those), but Born to Run is, in some ways, the birth of the Bruce Springsteen that would truly take the world by storm, and the disc has a real power and impact and statement of purpose to it that makes it sound like the equivalent of the greatest debut album you’ve ever heard. 

Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978, Columbia)

A

An altogether different kind of beast from Born to Run, Bruce doesn’t try to replicate the formula of his commercial breakthrough here. There are no sprawling epics like “Jungleland” here (though “Racing in the Street” comes close in scope), nor are there any Spector-sized “Born to Run” sound-alikes or any playful, retro-rock-tinged numbers comparable to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” [In fact, most of the more pop-oriented, playful cuts recorded during the sessions for the disc were either given to other artists, as was the case with “Fire” and “Because the Night,” which were donated, respectively, to the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith, or shelved entirely.] The songs here are much more concise than those on Born to Run and they’re generally a little catchier, too, but they’re also distinctly angrier and only sporadically sound like the material that hits are made of. Lest Bruce take himself too seriously, there is a concession to the pop market in the excellent single “Prove It All Night,” but otherwise, this is a very intense disc (rarely have Bruce and his band rocked with such grit and menace as they do on “Adam Raised a Cain” or as frantically as they do on “Candy’s Room”), albeit a very good one. The balladry of the title cut is one of Springsteen’s better ballads from the ‘70s, and “Badlands” is the obligatory anthem and quite the artistically successful one, while “The Promised Land” isn’t far behind.

The River (1980, Columbia)

A

It might sprawl just a little too much for its own good (as most double albums usually do) and Bruce might have cut some awfully good songs along the way (how did “Be True,” “I Wanna Be with You,” “Loose Ends,” “Mary Lou,” and “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” get the ax?), but The River continues one of the hottest artistic streaks of the rock era, and there are enough gems here to excuse the occasional filler cut. The title cut is the most iconic ballad here, though “Fade Away” was technically the bigger hit, reaching the Top Twenty, and “Independence Day” isn’t far behind in its cinematic sweep, while “Stolen Car” and the album-closing “Wreck on the Highway” both foreshadow the stark and ominous vibe of the next disc, Nebraska. There are also quite a few underrated rockers here, from “Out in the Street” and “Ramrod” to the very catchy “Two Hearts” and the driving opener “The Ties That Bind,” which really should have been released as a single. But the most famous song of all here is the second-side opener, the wildly catchy, charming, playful, Spector-meets-Motown arena-sized soul-pop of “Hungry Heart”; everything about the cut – from the Mighty Max drum roll that kicks it off to the soaring backing vocals of Flo and Eddie from The Turtles – is absolutely perfect, and it deservedly became The Boss’ biggest 45 yet and his very first to reach the Top Ten. 

Nebraska (1982, Columbia)

A + 

Fair warning: while this is certainly one of Bruce’s greatest albums, it is also, in a lot of ways, the Springsteen equivalent of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – it’s very stark and minimalist, it’s more depressing and unsettling than comforting, and it’s also the sound of one of the biggest rock stars on the planet more or less committing commercial suicide. There is no E Street Band here, nor is there any band here at all, period. This disc consists entirely of demos performed by Bruce alone, and they very much sound like demos, too, the sound quality having a lot to be desired. So why is this disc so good? For starters, this is very much a distinct album piece, and these songs – featuring a cast of assorted characters finding themselves in the most harrowing of circumstances – go extremely well together. Secondly, even if there’s not much here that can be described as upbeat or fiery, there’s a real sense of passion to it all, and this is one very emotionally powerful disc – maybe not one that lifts the spirits (although it ends on a mildly encouraging note with “Reason to Believe”), but one that has a lot to say about the human existence and is designed to really make you think. That means it’s never as fun to listen to as, say, Born to Run, and it’s easily his most challenging disc of the ‘70s or ‘80s to listen to in full, but if you’re up to it, you’ll find it a very artistic and insightful ride. Naturally, fans who prefer Springsteen’s Spector-sized excursions with the E Street Band to his folk side may understandably have a hard time warming up to this disc; like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, it’s certainly not for everyone, and even those who do like it will want to be in just the right mood to listen to it from start to finish, but it makes for a fascinating piece of art, and there are several individual songs here that stand out in their own right, namely the lazy grooves of “Reason to Believe,” the up-tempo “Johnny 99,” the ominous “State Trooper,” the pretty “Mansion on the Hill,” and, best of all, the Springsteen classic “Atlantic City.”