Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Bruce Springsteen Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Born in the U.S.A. (1984, Columbia)

A +

As if compensating for the sheer lack of commerciality of Nebraska, Bruce not only returns to the more radio-friendly territory of The River here, but he’s also no longer giving away his catchiest songs – “Cover Me,” in fact, was originally destined for Donna Summer’s self-titled 1982 album before Jon Landau intervened and begged The Boss to save the cut for his next record – and is not adverse to jam-packing this disc with single-worthy fodder. There are seven Top Ten hits here, actually: the aforementioned “Cover Me,” the pounding rock of the masterful “Dancing in the Dark” (a near-Number-One that sadly missed the top by only one spot and features one of Max Weinberg’s greatest moments on disc, playing a simple but deceptively powerful, muscular, hypnotic driving beat that seems too perfect to have been played by a real person), the gentle rockabilly of “I’m on Fire,” the glorious nostalgia-themed rock-and-roll of “Glory Days,” the meditative folk-pop of “My Hometown,” the playful “I’m Goin’ Down,” and, of course, the thunderous arena-rock of the album’s iconic title cut. Even the non-singles are dramatically more catchy than Bruce’s usual album cuts, and “Working on the Highway,” “Darlington County,” and “No Surrender” all sound like they could have been hits in their own right. Call it less artful than Born to Run if you must, but that wouldn’t exactly be fair: if anything, Bruce never struck a better balance between his more ambitious side and the pop market than he does here, and he does it all without ever sounding as if he’s selling out. Instead, it just plays like a less embittered and more radio-friendly version of Darkness on the Edge of Town. There’s a reason this remains the biggest-selling The Boss ever made: he’s simply at the top of his game here as a songwriter, and he’s rarely ever sounded more focused, the brevity of these songs really working in their favor. 

Tunnel of Love (1987, Columbia)

A

One of Springsteen’s more interesting career moves, this album isn’t quite as arena-sized as its predecessor (the E Street Band is used only minimally here and never as a full unit, sadly), nor does it return to the raw folk of Nebraska. Instead, the disc is comparable to a more adult-contemporary-oriented version of Born in the U.S.A. – slickly-produced and commercial, yet a little less Phil Spector-like in its arrangements and more laid-back and introspective than it is hard-rocking. Had Bruce continued to make albums in this vein, it’s likely that he would have fared better both commercially and artistically in the ‘90s than he ended up doing since this is an unexpectedly graceful disc for an album of this nature – reflective and profound without ever sounding self-indulgent, gently-rocking where it needs to be without sounding stiff or awkward, and commercial without ever sounding crass – and it tends to be very underrated. While it’s true there were only half as many hits from this album as Born in the U.S.A. yielded, the songwriting is still nearly every bit as good, and cuts like “Spare Parts,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Tougher than the Rest” and the title cut are memorable indeed, while the meditative groove of “One Step Up” and the Roy Orbison-esque “Brilliant Disguise” are both flat-out brilliant and rank among Bruce’s most sophisticated pop singles.

Human Touch (1992, Columbia)

C –  

Well, the hot streak had to end at some point! Chalk it up to boredom, perhaps, but Springsteen made perhaps the worst move of his career when he decided at the end of the ‘80s to disband the E Street Band, and though this disc – released simultaneously with Lucky Town – boasts fun cameos from the likes of soul legend Sam Moore, former Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, and pre-Born to Run bandmate David Sancious, the small-scale backing band here – consisting of Bittan, Randy Jackson (yes, that Randy Jackson), and Jeff Porcaro – lacks the chemistry (and the sheer majestic grandeur) of the E Street Band, and the songs largely feel very much like throwaways (“Gloria’s Eyes” is particularly bad), though there are a few songs to salvage the mess, including the title cut (the only Top 40 hit here), “Soul Driver,” the stomping “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On),” and the Bittan co-writes “Real World’ and “Roll of the Dice.” 

Lucky Town (1992, Columbia)

C +

Like Human Touch, there is no E Street Band here, and the production is very much ‘90s-adult-contemporary-rock-sounding and doesn’t breathe the way the best Springsteen albums do, but the songs here are at least better than those on Human Touch, namely the title cut, “Leap of Faith,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” and “Better Days.” Its second half isn’t nearly as good, so it’s tempting to say that Bruce might have had a great album had he kept the five or six best songs here and combined them with the small handful of highlights from Human Touch and just put out a single product, but even that would have still paled next to Tunnel of Love, and no matter how you slice it, Bruce was simply creatively lost during the ‘90s, so fans looking to assemble a full Springsteen collection are advised to skip straight from Tunnel of Love to The Rising and pick up the three ‘90s discs last.

The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995, Columbia)

B –

Much like Nebraska, this is a largely lo-fi affair bursting with themes of bitterness and desperation, but it’s never quite as raw or as stark as that disc and, in contrast to the one-man-demos of Nebraska, there are some full-band cuts here, which makes this a noticeably more commercial affair than that disc. Unfortunately, the material’s also spottier, so it falls short of reaching the artistic heights of Nebraska. Still, this is a slightly more artistically successful and enjoyable disc than the misguided Human Touch and Lucky Town, and there are a few minor classics here, namely the title cut (inspired by the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath), the bare-bones “Highway 29,” the brief but powerful album closer “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” and best of all, the full-band, pedal-steel-laced “Youngstown.”

Tracks (1998, Columbia)
18 Tracks (1999, Columbia)

A +

The four-disc box Tracks is actually a long-overdue clearinghouse of both non-LP B-sides never available on CD until now and a generous helping of previously-unreleased material. Springsteen has always been famous for recording far more material for any given album than he can actually use, and a lot of very good and legitimately single-worthy material has been relegated to the cutting-room floor over the years simply because it didn’t fit either musically or conceptually with what he was going for, which means that there’s actually a lot more first-rate material here than you might expect any box of outtakes to contain. The much-loved Born in the U.S.A. B-sides “Pink Cadillac” and “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” are here, as are the fabulous The River outtakes “I Wanna Be with You,” “Loose Ends,” “Roulette,” and “Mary Lou,” a live recording of the late-‘70s outtake “Rendezvous,” the fantastic Born in the U.S.A. outtakes “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “Lion’s Den,” surprisingly good ‘90s-era outtakes like “Sad Eyes” (later a minor hit for Enrique Iglesias), and such legendary early outtakes as “Bishop Danced,” “Thundercrack,” and “Seaside Bar Song.” Consumers on a budget can pick up most of the highlights via the single-disc sampler 18 Tracks, which also infuriatingly adds three cuts not included in the box, including Bruce’s own version of the classic “The Fever,” which was given to Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes instead. 

The Rising (2002, Columbia)

A

A much-welcome return to form, Springsteen’s first post-9/11 album is heavily influenced by and hard to separate from the tragic events of that day and its immediate aftermath, and for that reason, it’s a very emotionally powerful disc, helped greatly by the fact that Bruce has wisely re-employed the services of the much-missed E Street Band. There are a few misfires – namely the jarring, electronic-tinged “The Fuse” and the Middle Eastern-influenced “Worlds Apart” – but “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” is quite fun and playful and boasts one of his catchiest melodies since Tunnel of Love and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is just as comforting, while “You’re Missing” is simply devastatingly lovely. Best of all, though, is the chill-inducing arena-rock of the aspiring anthems “The Rising” and “Lonesome Day,” which find Springsteen and his indispensable backing unit getting back to what they do best.