Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bruce Springsteen

  • Greetings from Asbury Park NJ [Columbia, 1973] B+
  • The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle [Columbia, 1973] A-
  • Born to Run [Columbia, 1975] A
  • Darkness on the Edge of Town [Columbia, 1978] B+
  • The River [Columbia, 1980] A-
  • Nebraska [Columbia, 1982] A-
  • Born in the USA [Columbia, 1984] A+
  • Tunnel of Love [Columbia, 1987] A
  • Chimes of Freedom [Columbia EP, 1987] B-
  • Human Touch [Columbia, 1992] *
  • Lucky Town [Columbia, 1992] Neither
  • The Ghost of Tom Joad [Columbia, 1995] *
  • Tracks [Columbia, 1998] Choice Cuts
  • Live in New York City [Columbia, 2001] Choice Cuts
  • The Rising [Columbia, 2002] Choice Cuts
  • Devils and Dust [Columbia, 2005] A-
  • Born to Run (30th Anniversary Edition) [Columbia, 2005]  
  • We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions [Columbia, 2006] B
  • Magic [Columbia, 2007] **
  • Bruce Springsteen and the Session Band Live in Dublin [Columbia, 2007] **
  • Working on a Dream [Columbia, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Wrecking Ball [Columbia, 2012] A-
  • High Hopes [Columbia, 2014] *
  • Springsteen on Broadway [Columbia, 2018] A
  • Western Stars [Columbia, 2019] *

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Greetings from Asbury Park NJ [Columbia, 1973]
"The Angel" and "Mary Queen of Arkansas" are turgid unaccompanied-acoustic horrors that could scare anybody off this particular Dylan hype. But the jokey lingo and absurdist energy of everything else are exactly the excesses that made Dylan a genius instead of a talent--it takes real conviction to save "But did not heed my urgency" with "Your life was one long emergency." Even urban-mythos rambles like "Lost in the Flood" are not without charm. And in songs like "Growin' Up" and "Blinded by the Light" there's an unguarded teen-underclass poetry that has Springsteen's name on it. B+

The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle [Columbia, 1973]
Folkie trappings behind him, Springsteen has created a funky, vivacious rock and roll that's too eager and zany ever to be labeled tight, suggesting jazz heard through an open window with one r&b saxophone, or Latin music out in the street with zero conga drums. He celebrates youth in all its irresponsible compassion and doomed arrogance, but he's also old enough to know better--for him, the pleasures of the city are bigger and more exquisite than the defiance and escape that define most hard rock. "New York City Serenade" is as bathetic as you might fear, but "Rosalita" is more lyrical and ironic than you could have dreamed. This guy may not be God yet, but he has his sleeveless undershirt in the ring. A-

Born to Run [Columbia, 1975]
Just how much American myth can be crammed into one song, or a dozen, about asking your girl to come take a ride? A lot, but not as much as romanticists of the doomed outsider believe. Springsteen needs to learn that operettic pomposity insults the Ronettes and that pseudotragic beautiful-loser fatalism insults us all. And around now I'd better add that the man avoids these quibbles at his best and simply runs them over the rest of the time. If "She's the One" fails the memory of Phil Spector's innocent grandeur, well, the title cut is the fulfillment of everything "Be My Baby" was about and lots more. Springsteen may well turn out to be one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it. In closing, two comments from my friends the Marcuses. Jenny: "Who does he think he is, Howard Keel?" (That's a put-down.) Greil: "That is as good as `I Think We're Alone Now.'" (That's not.) A

Darkness on the Edge of Town [Columbia, 1978]
"Promised Land," "Badlands," and "Adam Raised a Cain" are models of how an unsophisticated genre can illuminate a mature, full-bodied philosophical insight. Lyrically and vocally, they move from casual to incantatory modes with breathtaking subtlety, jolting ordinary details into meaning. But many of the other songs remain local-color pieces, and at least two--"Something in the Night" and "Streets of Fire"--are overwrought, soggy, all but unlistenable. An important minor artist or a rather flawed and inconsistent major one. B+

The River [Columbia, 1980]
All the standard objections apply. His beat is still clunky, his singing overwrought, his sense of significance shot through with Mazola Oil. He's too white and too male, though he's decent enough to wish he weren't; too unanalytic and fatalistic, though his eye is sharp as can be. Yet by continuing to root his writing in the small victories and large compromises of ordinary joes and janies whose need to understand as well as celebrate is as restless as his own, he's grown into a bitter empathy. These are the wages of young romantic love among those who get paid by the hour, and even if he's only giving forth with so many short fast ones because the circles of frustration and escape seem tighter now, the condensed songcraft makes this double album a model of condensation--upbeat enough for a revery there, he elaborates a myth about the fate of the guys he grew up with that hits a lot of people where they live. A-

Nebraska [Columbia, 1982]
Literary worth is established with the title tune, in which Springsteen's Charlie Starkweather becomes the first mass murderer in the history of socially relevant singer-songwriting to entertain a revealing thought--wants his pretty baby to sit in his lap when he gets the chair. Good thing he didn't turn that one into a rousing rocker, wouldn't you say, though (Hüsker Dü please note) I grant that some hardcore atonality might also produce the appropriate alienation effect. But the music is a problem here--unlike, er, Dylan, or Robert Johnson, or Johnny Shines or Si Kahn or Kevin Coyne, Springsteen isn't imaginative enough vocally or melodically to enrich these bitter tales of late capitalism with nothing but a guitar, a harmonica, and a few brave arrangements. Still, this is a conceptual coup, especially since it's selling. What better way to set right the misleading premise that rock and roll equals liberation? A-

Born in the USA [Columbia, 1984]
Imperceptible though the movement has been to many sensitive young people, Springsteen has evolved. In fact, this apparent retrenchment is his most rhythmically propulsive, vocally incisive, lyrically balanced, and commercially undeniable album. Even his compulsive studio habits work for him: the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn't that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good. And while Nebraska's one-note vision may be more left-correct, my instincts (not to mention my leftism) tell me that this uptempo worldview is truer. Hardly ride-off-into-the-sunset stuff, at the same time it's low on nostalgia and beautiful losers. Not counting the title powerhouse, the best songs slip by at first because their tone is so lifelike: the fast-stepping "Working on the Highway," which turns out to be about a country road gang: "Darlington County," which pins down the futility of a macho spree without undercutting its exuberance; and "Glory Days," which finally acknowledges that among other things, getting old is a good joke. A+

Tunnel of Love [Columbia, 1987]
Where Nebraska was plunged in a social despair he never quite made his own, this companion piece comes out of personal compulsion. By depicting the fear of commitment as sheer terror, he does the impossible: renews L-O-V-E as pop subject. First side's got distance, bravado, optimism, even a joke, but then comes one long deep look inside, so well-observed that he seems neither self-pitying nor self-important, just a decent guy with a realistic understanding of his major but not insoluble emotional problems. And although the format is almost as spare as Nebraska's, the man has worked on his sense of rhythm the way he's worked on his marriage, which means he's pleasing to hear with just a drummer or alone. Next thing you know he'll learn to dance. A

Chimes of Freedom [Columbia EP, 1987]
If the title cut on this live charity record invests Dylan's protest with an aura of sacred majesty, the other three invest honorable Springsteen copyrights with an aura of sacred cow. Supposedly, his "reinterpretations" of his own "classics"--acoustic "Born To Run," E Street "Tougher Than the Rest"--have a demythologizing effect, but years of enormous rooms have finally taken their spiritual toll; the self-importance he's always accused of drips from his all-American drawl like Vitalis off a D.A. He's staved off this fate for as long as he has with modest strokes like Nebraska, and it's conceivable he'll come up with another one. Then again, this was probably supposed to be another one. B-

Human Touch [Columbia, 1992]
windbag in love ("Cross My Heart," "The Long Goodbye") *

Lucky Town [Columbia, 1992] Neither

The Ghost of Tom Joad [Columbia, 1995]
his gift for social realist literature exceeds his gift for political music ("The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Across the Border") *

Tracks [Columbia, 1998]
"Pink Cadillac"; "The Honeymooners"; "The Wish"; "Leavin' Train"; "Gave It a Name" Choice Cuts

Live in New York City [Columbia, 2001]
"American Skin (41 Shots)" Choice Cuts

The Rising [Columbia, 2002]
"Paradise," "Nothing Man," "The Rising," "My City of Ruins" Choice Cuts

Devils and Dust [Columbia, 2005]
Springsteen the superstar's one-man-band album is less engaging musically than Malkmus the cult artist's, but more engaging artistically, because for all his overreliance on dramatic drawls, Southwestern locales, and mother love, Springsteen has stories to tell. I dearly hope the two kids in "Long Time Comin'"'s sleeping bag are off with their parents on a cheap but restorative vacation--that would be so much less a commonplace than on the road. But I'm not so curious I'm tempted to boot up the explanatory DVD on the other side of the superstar's DualDisc. A-

Born to Run (30th Anniversary Edition) [Columbia, 2005]
See: Re-Run.  

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions [Columbia, 2006]
We shall overkill, he means. Never have his Howard Keel tendencies, or maybe now they're Paul Robeson tendencies, tripped him up so bad. The idea is to big up the music and play the jokes you don't ignore like you're working a Roman amphitheater. I'm glad to have met the anti-war lament "Mrs. McGrath" and Sis Cunningham's "My Oklahoma Home," and sort of hope young people deprived of music appreciation funding will now hear "Erie Canal," "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," "John Henry," and "Jesse James." Only are young people really ignorant of these songs? And how many of them buy Springsteen albums anyway? Amping up his strange bluegrass-Dixieland hybrid like E Street is just around the corner, he sings his lungs out. But in folk music, lightness is all--and only newbies and John Hammond Jr. lean so hard on the cornpone drawl. B

Magic [Columbia, 2007]
Always emotional, sometimes mawkish, he lives with war as he tries to forget it ("Last to Die," "Livin' in the Future"). **

Bruce Springsteen and the Session Band Live in Dublin [Columbia, 2007]
As loose and unforced as he ever gets on record ("Open All Night," "Old Dan Tucker"). **

Working on a Dream [Columbia, 2009]
"Queen of the Supermarket," "Outlaw Pete," "Kingdom of Days" Choice Cuts

Wrecking Ball [Columbia, 2012]
The first six tracks are all heavy irony shading over into murderous rage, with refurbished arena-rock to slam it home; it's perversely anti-political to lay any other interpretation on the opening "We Take Care of Our Own," which cites places "From the shotgun shack to the Superdome" where we--meaning the U.S.A. so many Americans weren't even born in--documentably haven't taken care of our own. It's protest music, damn right about moral abstractions rather than those finely limned characters good little aesthetes get gooey about, and for me a cathartic up. Second half's less of a scour, which the anti-political find a blessed relief and I find a forgivable nod to humanism and Clarence Clemons--especially since the climactic "We Are Alive" is so vulgar as to assume that all America's oppressed will rise up from the grave they share. To wreak vengeance, y'think? They got a right. A-

High Hopes [Columbia, 2014]
Overstatement is his weakness, and Tom Morello definitely doesn't rein in him, but only cynics resist his skill set ("Harry's Place," "Dream Baby Dream") *

Springsteen on Broadway [Columbia, 2018]
Always averse to shelling out major bucks for a Broadway show, me and my gal were happy to catch this one on Netflix--in two sittings, true, but when I streamed the audio version a month or two later I found myself listening with minimal zone-out for two-and-a-half hours straight. So I bought the budget-priced double CD, and though it was a while before I felt like sticking disc one in the changer, just a few minutes passed before I added disc two and listened through yet again. Never big on extended spoken-word material or solo-acoustic remakes of exalted songbooks, I'm impressed. The Springsteen this most recalls isn't like any earlier album but the 2016 autobiography he called Born to Run for better reasons than you might imagine. Like that fast-reading 508-pager, its aim is to simultaneously depict and demythologize the Jersey shore and poke major holes in an authenticity it reconceives at a truer level of complexity--on his first cross-country car trip, the guy who would soon write "Racing in the Street" had to learn to drive from scratch when the guy who was supposed to ride shotgun disappeared in Tennessee. Like the book, this ends where it begins--at the huge old copper beech tree that anchored his childhood, except that since he last visited the county has cut it to the street. Springsteen being Springsteen, he swears "some essential piece of it was still there"--and being Springsteen, convinces you that that's his truth even if it isn't your kind of thing. A

Western Stars [Columbia, 2019]
"America used to be better" is a political message of some potential use, but how many of his faithful will blame it on the rich and how many on the young? ("Tucson Train," "Moonlight Motel") *

See Also