Bruce Springsteen: 10 hidden gems from 'The Boss'
The release of a new album is a perfect excuse for Springsteen fans to delve into the further reaches of his peerless back catalogue
If you want a neat description of what Bruce Springsteen's first studio album in five years is like, you might as well pay attention to the man himself. "This record," he recently said of Western Stars, "is a return to my solo recordings featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements."
And the album is exactly as he describes it. It's also uniformly excellent - packed with songs that get to the heart of what Springsteen has been about for five decades, offering proof that the wellspring of inspiration is in no danger of drying up.
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Springsteen says he and the E-Street Band will go on the road next year, so his many Irish devotees have a while yet to wait before they see one of the all-time great live acts once more. But in the mean time, Western Stars is an invitation to luxuriate in the New Jersey native in exceptional form. It also encourages us to delve deep into his remarkable back catalogue.
Die-hard Springsteen fans will know every B-side and rare live outing, but for those whose knowledge is largely confined to the greatest hits - and there are many of those - here are 10 under-rated, career-spanning gems from the Boss:
Lost in the Flood (1973)
Springsteen was just 22 when he recorded his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, but it sounds like the work of a much older, more worldly songwriter. Seemingly inspired by the treatment of Vietnam War veterans, this song which closes Side A, is at the emotional heart of the album. The lyrics have a loose, fragmentary feel but Springsteen's dissatisfaction with the ways of his native land is clear. It would become a staple on 2004's politically charged Vote for Change tour. Intriguingly, the special effects at the song's beginning were performed by future E-Street guitarist Steven van Zandt.
Something in the Night, 1978
After the huge success of 1975's breakthrough album Born to Run, Springsteen found himself at a crossroads - would he accentuate his new-found mainstream success or try something more left field? He also had significant legal troubles to contend with as he sought to extricate himself from then manager Mike Appel. The result was Darkness on the Edge of Town - one of his most enduring albums - and among its great moments is this classic-sounding Springsteen song looking back on his youth in New Jersey, saying goodbye to his past and looking to the future.
The Springsteen of the late 1970s was in prolific mood, and it is said that he wrote 70 songs in the '77/78 period album. Some of them, including this one, were supposed to appear on an album with a working title of The Ties that Bind. It didn't see the light of day (until much later) and he went on to make one of his most singular albums, The River. 'Cindy' is one of the most bittersweet songs he ever recorded - a tune that captures unrequited love like few others - and, although widely available as a bootleg for years, it was finally, officially released on The Ties that Bind: The River collection in 2015.
Wreck on the Highway, 1980
The closing track on Springsteen's only double album, The River, is as haunting as any song he has written. Directly inspired by Roy Acuff's country song of the same name from 1938, it captures the horror of witnessing a fatal car crash and imagining the pain and heartbreak of the victims' loved ones. But it's a song that connects on more than just a literal level. Springsteen has talked about it being a wake-up call to live life fully: "You have a limited number of opportunities to love someone, to do your work, to be part of something, to parent your children, to do something good."
Downbound Train, 1984
A number of tracks on Born in the USA were first penned during the Nebraska sessions, including the title track and the stark 'Downbound Train'. Considering the downbeat, resigned feel of the latter, it's hard to imagine it began life as a rockabilly number. But on Springsteen's most emblematic album, it's a slowed-down meditation on a life going nowhere fast. Springsteen has long been hailed as the poet of blue collar America, and this is one of the tracks that burnished that legend.
The Wish, 1987
Tunnel of Love remains Springsteen's most personal album, and there were plenty of songs recorded for it that didn't make the final cut. 'The Wish' was one of them, and it eventually surfaced on his four-disc bits and pieces album, Tracks in 1998. It was written about his mother and the sacrifices she made to give him the best start in life. It's wonderfully affecting and it was one of the highlights of the Springsteen on Broadway stage show (which you can see on Netflix right now). "I think it's easier to write about your dad in rock and roll than about your mother. 'The Wish' was probably one of the most autobiographical songs I ever wrote," he said.
Real World, 1992
Springsteen had a busy 1992. He released two very different albums simultaneously - Human Touch and Lucky Town. They were his first releases after the disbandment of the E Street Band and are generally not loved by fans. "I tried it [writing happy songs] in the early '90s," Springsteen said later, "and it didn't work; the public didn't like it." Despite this, there are some exceptional songs to be found on both albums, including 'Real World' from Human Touch. He did an acoustic version in Dublin during his Devils and Dust tour and it was hauntingly beautiful.
Secret Garden, 1995
The '90s weren't especially kind to Springsteen, although there's a cohort of his fanbase that feel he turned things around with the largely acoustic 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad. That same year, he released the huge-selling Greatest Hits - his first compilation album - and it featured a brand new song, 'Secret Garden'. It may be one of Springsteen's most commercial offerings of that decade but it's also a ballad of remarkable beauty. It found its way onto the Jerry Maguire soundtrack the following year and, curiously, considering its singalong qualities, it's rarely played live.
The Wrestler, 2008
Springsteen has long been obsessed by movies and he's written some powerful ones for the silver screen, not least 'Philadelphia' for the Tom Hanks film of the same name. This one was penned for The Wrestler, which marked the stunning comeback of '80s heart-throb Mickey Rourke. It's a wonderfully dark song that looks at man's struggles against adversity - a common Springsteen theme. The following year, it was included on the Working On A Dream album, and it seemed like an odd fit amid the album's more upbeat, pop-oriented songs.
Jack of All Trades, 2012
Wrecking Ball, one of Springsteen's most political albums , was released slap-bang in the middle of the global recession. It's an angry album but there's a sort of resigned anger on 'Jack of All Trades', another of his blue collar masterpieces. "The banker man grows fat," he sings. "Working man grows thin. It's all happened before and it'll happen again." It's a sentiment that was as applicable to Ireland as to America.
Western Stars is released this weekend