Born to Run (1975) There’s a particular brand of vanity that exists in certain kinds of young men between the ages of 19 and 27 where it’s vitally important to present a façade that is equal parts masculine, feminine, tough, and sensitive. For instance (and this example is purely hypothetical and not at all autobiographical), this certain kind of young man may drive around alone late on rainy nights — he actually chooses to drive when it rains because it is appropriately evocative for his inner emotional geography — while listening to Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Jungleland.” And when he feels himself starting to cry, he will look in the rearview mirror in order to stare at his own tears. He knows he will never tell anyone that he cries alone to the sounds of the Big Man’s titanic blowing, but he guesses that strangers will sense it, and this will make him appear soulful. (Forgive him. He is a little naive and very silly.) It doesn’t matter that the lyrics of “Jungleland” have virtually nothing to do with his life — he’s pretty sure that the only people for whom “kids flash guitars just like switchblades” represents reality are Danny Zuko and Kenickie. But this song is still his avatar, and he’s confident it always will be.
Because this person is a nerd, he will remember that a 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen painstakingly directed Clemons in the studio during the recording of “Jungleland,” telling him when to go up, when to go down, and when to hold. And he will wonder whether Bruce did this while staring at himself in the mirror. PROPERLY RATED.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) This was the first Springsteen record coproduced by his new manager and ex–rock critic Jon Landau, and it sounds like a record designed by a rock critic. The songs are shorter (rock critics hate jamminess), more cynical (rock critics hate sentimentality), and generally weighed down by undercurrents of depression and severe daddy issues (no comment). So, I guess I’m outing myself as a sucker for critic-bait when I say this is my favorite Springsteen album. It’s his best “guitar solo” record (see “Adam Raised a Cain” or any live version of “Prove It All Night”). It’s also the first, best example of Springsteen juxtaposing rousing rock music with miniaturist, miserablist, Middle American storytelling — which is to say, it kicks your ass and crushes your heart. PROPERLY RATED.
The River (1980) This is a double album that feels like two separate albums. The first record takes place during the day — the people in these songs go to work and then drink off the drudgery at the corner tavern. The second record occurs in the middle of the night. (Not to be confused with The Night, the romanticized nocturnal fantasyland of the early records. This night is black, cold, and silent, like that final jump cut on the Sopranos finale.) I listen to the first disc at least three times as much, mostly because I love how it splits the difference between Born to Run and Darkness. This disc contains some of Springsteen’s most exuberant songs (“Two Hearts,” “Out in the Street”) as well as his most direct gut punches (“Independence Day,” the title track). Then you have the second disc, which is so ominous and death-obsessed it manages to out-Darkness Darkness. (This is the side that Sylvester Stallone plays endlessly in Cop Land, because the big lug feels like a stolen car being driven on a pitch-black night.)
Initially greeted by critics as a masterwork and responsible for Springsteen’s first hit, “Hungry Heart,” The River was subsequently overshadowed by the records that surround it in his discography. Casual listeners will always pick up Born to Run or Nebraska first. But The River is the most representative of his entire body of work. UNDERRATED.
Nebraska (1982) I love Nebraska. I love that it contains my favorite Springsteen “hit.”2 I love that it has at least three deep cuts (the title track, “Johnny 99,” and “Used Cars”) that belong in the 98th percentile of Bruce Springsteen deep cuts. I love that it easily has the best cover art of any Springsteen album.3 I love that Bruce recorded it at home and on a four-track recorder, which makes Nebraska his Bee Thousand. I love that Kanye West likened Yeezus to Nebraska, because “Hold My Liquor” is essentially “Highway Patrolman” as sung from Frankie’s point of view. That said, we’re not here to figure out whether Nebraska is great, but whether it’s properly rated. This complicates the issue, because Nebraska is the go-to record for people who don’t like Springsteen because it’s not like Springsteen’s other albums.
Which is fine, except these same people then take the next step and declare Nebraska to be Springsteen’s “best” album, based on the (strange) criterion that an artist’s least characteristic work should somehow be considered superior to his most characteristic. I can’t allow this. (In my view, Born, Darkness, and The River are all better records.) Therefore, I must declare Nebraska to be ever so slightly OVERRATED.
Steven Hyden-January 2014
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