by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums
Devils and Dust (2005, Columbia)
Yet a third, more-folk-leaning, E Street Band-less outing, this one is slightly better than The Ghost of Tom Joad but still falls short of the greatness of Nebraska for two reasons: it’s spottier (the explicit “Reno” being the greatest offender), and it lacks anything as easily memorable as “Atlantic City,” Bruce not exactly at the top of his melodic powers here. But at least half the disc is fairly good, namely the title cut (with boasts some very dramatic drumming from Steve Jordan), the rocking “All the Way Home,” the hurdy-gurdy-laced stomp of “Maria’s Bed,” the acoustic grooves of “Leah” (which makes great use of trumpeter Mark Pender), and the ballad “Matamoros Banks.” It’s also a shame that the catchy “All I’m Thinkin’ About” is included here, because it would have worked even better as an E Street Band side and should have been saved for his next rock project. Like Nebraska, this one is a bit of an acquired taste and might be disappointing to fans who prefer the vibrancy and the rock’n’roll energy of the E Street Band to Springsteen’s more folk-influence excursions, so you may want to skip over it, butit’s not at all a bad disc.
We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions (2006, Columbia)
Sure, it’s a pretty weird and questionable career move for Springsteen to have followed up the career-reviving E Street Band reunion disc The Rising with two consecutive folk albums, the latter an all-standards affair. But give Springsteen credit: this is an even more appealing folk-flavored affair than the downbeat Devils and Dust, and these are some really, really heartfelt, energetic, and undeniably charming performances of songs that had little, if any, chance of getting played on the radio, so if you have to commend him for having the passion to take on a project of this nature. “Old Dan Tucker,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Pay Me My Money Down,” and “My Oklahoma Home” are all memorable and “Shenandoah” and the haunting “Eyes on the Prize” the loveliest ballads here. Whether you actually play this record all that often will depend on your musical preferences – there’s little about this disc that’s either pop or rock – but even if you’re not much of a folk buff, it’s hard to resist the charm of this disc.
Magic (2007, Columbia)
Arguably his best album since Tunnel of Love, this hard-rocking disc with the E Street Band back in tow has an astoundingly fantastic first half. “Radio Nowhere” might be his greatest single since “Dancing in the Dark” – it’s certainly his catchiest since those days – and the hooks just keep coming, from the pounding “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” and the foot-tapping orchestral sweep of “Your Own Worst Enemy” to the vibrant, easygoing rock of “Livin’ in the Future” and the cinematic “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” The second half is mildly disappointing in comparison, but it’s still excellent, and there’s a true hidden gem tucked near the end of the disc in “Long Walk Home.” Magic is exactly that – magic – and is easily one of the best discs – if not the best – in Springsteen’s post-‘80s body of work.
Working on a Dream (2009, Columbia)
A noticeable decline in quality from Magic, this is a mildly disappointing album and does contain a few album and does contain a few truly bad cuts, namely “Queen of the Supermarket,” in which Springsteen reaches a new lyrical nadir. But it’s also slightly better than its reputation might have you believe, and there is still a decent number of fairly solid songs here, including the eight-minute epic “Outlaw Pete,” the sunny arena-rock of the title cut and “My Lucky Day,” the insistent acoustic grooves of “What Love Can Do,” the unusually simplistic pop of “Surprise, Surprise,” the subdued acoustic closer “The Carnival,” and the bonus cut “The Wrestler” from the film of the same name.
The Promise (2010, Columbia)
Not technically a new album per se, The Promise is in actuality a double-disc set of songs recorded during the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions that were ultimately scrapped. Some touch-up work was done to either fix or finish the tracks, so not everything here is exactly as it sounded on the original master tapes, but Springsteen and his partners do a nice job of making it all sound authentic and nothing really sticks out as being too modern or jarring of an addition. As for the songs themselves, it’s enough to make you question whether Bruce really picked the best songs for the officially-released version of Darkness. Aside from containing Bruce’s own versions of “Because the Night” and “Fire” and the long-sought-after studio recording of “Rendezvous,” this package boasts such great cuts as “Outside Looking In” (boasting a drum track reminiscent of Tommy Roe’s “Sheila”), the Spector-sized “The Little Things (My Baby Does)” and “Gotta Get That Feeling”, the insistent R&B of “Talk to Me,” the playful, Gary U.S. Bonds-like “Ain’t Good Enough for You,” “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” and, of course, the epic title cut. These may technically be outtakes, but most artists would give their left arm to come up with anything even half as good as the best songs here. This is a must-own for any fans of Springsteen’s ‘70s period.
Wrecking Ball (2012, Columbia)
No Magic, but no more spotty than Working on a Dream, either, Wrecking Ball does throw quite a few curveballs – “We Are Alone” distinctly recalls Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and also boasts a hint of bluegrass, while “Rocky Ground” has a clear gospel influence and cuts like “Easy Money,” “Shackled and Drawn,” and “Death to My Hometown” all have a heavy Irish flavor to them. Lest he completely alienate E Street Band fans, there a few more straightforward rock tunes here, and it’s those that work the best of anything on here, be it the swinging “Wrecking Ball” or the anthems “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” so it’s a shame there’s not more songs in that vein included. Despite the wide array of styles, it actually holds together as an album better than you might think, but there’s too much emphasis on sound and not enough on song to make this as much of a track-for-track knockout as Magic.
High Hopes (2014, Columbia)
Arguably his weakest rock album since Human Touch, this disc is a bit of a head-scratcher. For starters, scan the back cover and you’ll notice that Rage Against the Machine guitarist has been given a “featuring” credit on seven different cuts. (That sort of thing might be a norm on rap albums and modern-day Top 40 pop discs, but a Springsteen disc?) More troublesome is the strange track selection, which includes inexplicable re-recordings of 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and 2001’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and, even more unexpectedly, covers of The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would” and Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” Among the originals, there are several misfires, including “Harry’s Place,” which has an ill-advised electronic underpinning that makes it sound like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” and “Hunter of Invisible Game,” a folk story-song that isn’t bad so much as it just sounds completely out of place here. But any Springsteen album is bound to have at least a couple winners, and this disc is redeemed by the presence of the “I’m on Fire”-like “Down in the Hole,” the gospel-laced “Heaven’s Wall,” and the fiery title cut, actually a cover of an obscure song penned by Tim Scott McConnell of the band The Havalinas.
Bruce’s first hits package, 1995’s single-disc Greatest Hits (which boasted several new cuts, including “Murder Incorporated” and the surprise Top 40 hit “Secret Garden,” later immortalized on the big screen in Jerry Maguire) is his most famous, but it’s also maddeningly incomplete, excluding far too many of his hits to satisfy his more casual fans and excluding too many quintessential album cuts to satisfy the diehards. Your best bet is to pick up the 2003 double-disc package The Essential Bruce Springsteen, which is still missing far, far too many major chart hits (including “Cover Me,” “My Hometown,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “I’m on Fire,” “One Step Up” and “Prove It All Night”; hopefully, one day, Columbia eventually gets around to releasing a compilation that actually contains all his Top 40 hits in one place) but is considerably more comprehensive than any other single-or-double-disc package available.
Diehard Springsteen fans will want to pick up discs – available Online (in both CD and digital-download form) via the official Bruce Springsteen Archives – of his most legendary concerts, i.e. Tower Theater, Philadelphia 1975 – but for the most ideal on-disc introduction to the sheer power of Bruce’s live work, pick up the 1985 5-LP/3-CD Live/1975-85 box, which contains a well-assembled sampler of some of Springsteen’s greatest live moments from the most commercially successful era of his career, from the Born to Run tour through the Born in the U.S.A. tour. [It also boasts a sadly long-forgotten Top 40 hit – one that strangely never pops up on any of his best-ofs – in the form of a dynamic cover of Edwin Starr’s “War.”]