Thoughts on new Springsteen album: Beyond the bundling…

We’ve got to introduce Bruce to the digital EP. What we have here is not an album — at least not in the modern, serious, Springsteen sense. What we have here is a collection of songs sitting inside the same retail object. That’s not to say there aren’t some good songs here. There are. But this is a bundle for bundling’s sake. We need to disassemble and judge that way.

Or let’s just say it’s not a great Album. But it has some great songs.

1. High Hopes. I like it. I liked it was an outtake from the Blood Brothers sessions almost 20 years ago (yikes). I really liked it when Bruce gave it a big band run on the last tour leg. It was fun then, the sparse drums and all. This new album version is more gritty than fun. But it works.

2. Harry’s Place. So weird. An experiment. And it’s nice to see someone who’s extremely conservative about his music releasing an experiment. That’s what we digital people do in our jobs all the time, right? But this is where the bundling makes me unhappy. Throw stuff on SoundCloud. Post a song a week to your site or drop a digital EP every month. But the album proper deserves better (especially track #2) than one-off experiments.

3. American Skin (41 Shots). Terrific Springsteen social song… and has been since he released the live version a decade-plus ago. Bruce says he wanted to get the song on a proper album. Again, bundling issues. But it would’ve fit better on a social-justice-themed album. Here it disappears.

4. Just Like Fire Would. This song is no amazing thing. But it’s been stuck in my head for days now. DAYS. And the same thing happened when the live version happened during the Australian leg. It’s just sneaks up on you and sits on your shoulder for days. I’m happy to have it hang there.

5. Down in the Hole. The quiet ones are hard to notice on this album. Quiet songs stood out individually on The Rising immediately and, after a lot of listens, on Ghost of Tom Joad. This song has that potential, but the setting is just so weird. It may also have just too much going on. Too many sounds in too many different directions. Good for a Morello track, not for a Bruce one. The plot is hard to follow without focus. Rightly left off The Rising.

6. Heaven’s Wall. Vocals are too far back in the mix. If you’re going to rave up, gospel-style, go ahead and rave up. Same issues as track before, just at higher volumes. Morello issues meet Working on a Dream issues.

7.  Frankie Fell in Love. Everything that drove me nuts about the Brendan O’Brien era. Too many meaningless words and generic scenes surrounded by every instrument you’ve got it. Let’s make a rule: No more songs about anyone named Frankie. Independence Day. Highway Patrolman. Girls in Their Summer Clothes. And let’s not forget from the Tracks boxset: Frankie, a fantastic lost-then-found song and doesn’t need this kind of connection. And, yes, I know this track isn’t from the O’Brien era. But feels that way.

8. This Is Your Sword. Would’ve been great acoustic. I like the spirit of it, in a Wrecking Ball-tour kind of a way, but again, with all the sound around the middle of the mix, it’s hard to really engage with it. Gotta be the listener.

9. Hunter of Invisible Game. Why Bruce’s producers always have to make one strings instrument sound like a dozen is beyond me. But aside from that issue, I love this song. Voice is up front; the middle sounds threaten to ruin everything but don’t; narrative is weird and beautiful and sad.  Lyrics are just so damn good. I can’t even decide which verse is my favorite. Is it…

I hauled myself up out of the ditch
And built me an ark out of gopher wood and pitch
Sat down by the roadside and waited on the rain
I am the hunter of invisible game

Or…

Well I woke last night to the heavy clicking and clack
And a scarecrow on fire along the railroad tracks
There were empty cities and burning plains
I am the hunter of invisible game

Or…

Strength is vanity and time is illusion
I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion
Your skin touches mine, what else to explain
I am the hunter of invisible game

Or… the list goes on.

10. The Ghost of Tom Joad. Yeah, all the noise and Morello can drive you nuts. But here it all works. Get loud and awesome singing about the poor, and you can jam out as much as you want, as far as I’m concerned. The loud version from the last tour was seriously good rock, and the differences are enough where an album place feels justified. It’s a reinterpretation but also a restatement, and some things in life deserve saying again, louder.

11. The Wall. Glad this one has finally made it from bootlegs (and just a few of them, at that) to a more permanent place. Small song but deserving.

12. Dream Baby Dream. Bruce has been closing shows on sporadic legs with this cover for a few years now. I’ve never loved it in that spot because, one, it’s so different from much of the rest of the show, upping the musical atmospherics a ton, and, two, Springsteen shows go on and on and… this is hard to explain. It always feels like the last episode of a TV show where the ending doesn’t quite fit what came before. But on an album, I really like the song — and this style of it, with more movement and less air — as a closer. I’m surprised and happy the song could find a spot so comfortable, valuable. It’s a shame, then, this album isn’t much of an album. Do I need to put less pressure on the Album? Maybe. But this song argues for more.

All in all, compared to other late Springsteen albums, it’s not as good as Seeger Sessions or Magic or, a step down, Devils & Dust or Wrecking Ball. But it’s better than Working on a Dream. Going to keep listening, evaluating.

Loved Ann Powers’ long interview with Bruce on our site today. I like how he talks about the power of being in the same room as Elvis, even from a distance during the final shows of his life. Reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the recent Oxford American music issue, about a sideman’s time with Elvis during his post-comeback, back-into-struggle Stax sessions. The perfect headline on the melancholy: “We Had It All.”

Last thing: We need Bruce to comment on more memes.

Sometimes the ‘Why are you a fan?’ question is hard

I usually give a throwaway answer and don’t think much more about it.

But then I hear a lyric or come across a story — like when a friend rereads Remnick’s profile from last year and mentions this rereading on Twitter. I end up doing the same look back. On the subway, I get stuck on a pair of a paragraphs for a good five minutes. They remind me of why I’m a fan and of why I give that throwaway reply. Protect the well too much but haven’t become a rock genius or solved things yet? God save a human cannonball.

It took some doing to get Springsteen, an “isolationist” by nature, to settle into a real marriage, and resist the urge to dwell only in his music and onstage. “Now I see that two of the best days of my life,” he once told a reporter for Rolling Stone, “were the day I picked up the guitar and the day that I learned how to put it down.”

Scialfa smiled at that. “When you are that serious and that creative, and non-trusting on an intimate level, and your art has given you so much, your ability to create something becomes your medicine,” she said. “It’s the only thing that’s given you that stability, that joy, that self-esteem. And so you are, like, ‘This part of me no one is going to touch.’ When you’re young, that works, because it gets you from A to B. When you get older, when you are trying to have a family and children, it doesn’t work. I think that some artists can be prone to protecting the well that they fetched their inspiration from so well that they are actually protecting malignant parts of themselves, too. You begin to see that something is broken. It’s not just a matter of being the mythological lone wolf; something is broken. Bruce is very smart. He wanted a family, he wanted a relationship, and he worked really, really, really hard at it — as hard as he works at his music.”

Pilgrims, strangers, selves, and others

One song I turn to when I’m feeling restless is Springsteen’s Unsatisfied Heart. Recorded during the Born in the USA sessions, the song has never seen an official release. Bootlegs have put the song into circulation, and storytelling in the Bruce canon doesn’t get more simultaneously driving and haunting. The music is airy, but the vocals are front and center. The simple chorus repeats only, “With an unsatisfied heart, can you live?”

Mystery pervades in tiny lines. The narrator is a pilgrim to his new home. Life with his family is great. A man comes to town who knows something about him. The knowledge sends the narrator to flee his home. In dreams or not? We only hear about dreams subsequently. The narrator dreams he’s lost everything. He awakes in his wife’s arms. Or — the arms of the person he’s with now, if the dream is true and his life has fallen apart.

There are lots of ways to read the song. Queer theory? You’re not the first. A criminal reading, with Nebraska themes? You can work that pretty well. My favorite interpretation sees the song as a harbinger of Tunnel of Love. We’re now past songs where intensity plus love equal an in-or-out decision. We’re also beyond the River songs that begin to introduce ideas of lasting, adult choices. We’re onto where the intensity goes after choices are made.

An earlier version of the song is called Fugitive’s Dream. Queer theory gets a boost. In these lyrics, not only does the man have knowledge about the narrator, but the narrator invites him into his home and then touches the man’s cheek as he sleeps. Criminal themes, same thing. The title alone! But the same gains and more occur for the grown-up love theory. In this version, the narrator doesn’t end up in anyone’s bed. He just runs until —

I woke up in a motel room
With the light rushin’ in
Like someone had thrust open a door
And closed it tight again

The way I see it, the song births Tunnel songs like Brilliant DisguiseTwo Faces and Cautious Man (“on his right hand / Billy tattooed the word ‘love’ / and on his left hand the word ‘fear’ / and in which hand he held his fate/ was never clear.”) In this earlier song, the man who comes to town is who the narrator used to be. The knowledge the man brings is either a painful memory or, maybe worse, a reminder of something lost. Both instill doubt.

The end of Fugitive’s Dream is more clear than that of Unsatisfied Heart.

The night air fills my lungs,
The wind sweeps around me so strong
Stars rise in a black endless sky,
Grow brighter and brighter then gone, gone, gone

At a certain point of ciphering doubt and dream, particulars do not matter. The pieces and characters add up, or you become The Other to yourself.

Unsatisfied Heart (lyrics):

Fugitive’s Dream (lyrics):

How am I not in this movie?

It’s called Springsteen and I, and the trailer just came out.

Apparently, there was a casting call of sorts a while back, and I missed it. Or, more accurately, I saw it and thought, “Man, these people are going to look like a bunch of crazy people.” Seeing the trailer now, I was wrong.

Am now lost for a fun moment remembering my one-and-only time in the front row, now nearly 10 years ago. I’m very glad proof finally surfaced.

Someone asked me the other day how many Springsteen shows I’d seen, and I wasn’t quite sure. Just looked it up. 18! Bring on the next tour.

And not just because his name is ‘Shakey Graves’

I never expected I would write a blog post telling people to listen to a cover of Passionate Kisses. The song is one from Lucinda Williams, and that’s great. At the end of the day, though, the song is called Passionate Kisses.

But here we are. Cover Lay Down has this month introduced me to a man named Shakey Graves. His birth name is apparently Alejandro Rose-Garcia, but as far as I’m concerned, to be so young and sound so old gives him the right to the Graves name. The songs Covers Lay Down gives us are Graves’ covers of Lucinda’s Kisses and Bruce’s I’m on Fire. Both come in manners I never would have expected — and I’ve heard just about every Springsteen cover album there is. Listen for yourself below. Then click to the Lucinda.

“Is it too much to demand / I want a full house and a rock and roll band / Pens that won’t run out of ink / And cool quiet and time to think / Oh…”

And the line of traffic got longer outside

traffic

The office cold finally caught up with me early Friday, and I stayed home today to try and recuperate quickly. But there were better days to stay in. Outside, they began tearing down a bridge over Route 50. They rerouted all traffic to the side streets, and the westbound stretch of highway moved to my front door. Even if a person wanted to go somewhere, he couldn’t.

So, I kept to my couch and worked my way through Peter Ames Carlin’s new Bruce biography of Springsteen.The book had its fanboy moments and its counter-fanboy moments (reducing some old and resolved mysteries to footnotes). But with access to Springsteen and nearly everyone in his inner circle, the book was also the most complete bio of the Boss yet. Among the stories was one of Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and photographer Eric Meola flying to Salt Lake City in August 1977, a few days after the death of Elvis, and driving a red convertible around the West, just to take pictures.