The album to start with
Born to Run (1975)
By 1974, Bruce Springsteen was two albums deep, with a reputation as an urgent, vivid young songwriter. Mainstream success, however, still eluded him. In desperation, his record label awarded the then 25-year-old a colossal budget to make a third album. The responsibility of such investment and expectation weighed heavily on Springsteen; he spent 14 months on the record – including six months on the title track alone, refining, redrafting, trying desperately to replicate the sounds he heard so clearly in his head.
The result was not only a resounding success, it was a lesson, too, in musical craftsmanship, from the wall of sound-style production and arrangements to the immaculate structure; its ebullient songs of escape (Thunder Road, Born to Run) tempered by admissions of defeat (Jungleland, Backstreets). And he had opened up as a lyricist: his previous records had documented the nitty-gritty of Springsteen’s own New Jersey scene, but now he moved away from the specific toward the universal. There were still screen doors and porches and Chevrolets, and Mary and Magic Rat and Maximum Lawmen, but it was a broader, blue-collar sensibility that could resonate anywhere; one that looked beyond the giddy distractions of young manhood and found disillusionment and complexity. Born to Run was “the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom,” he said. “It was the dividing line.”
The three albums to check out next
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
The deluge of success that followed Born to Run (and a considerable stretch of legal wrangling with his former manager) meant that Springsteen began its successor in a state of retreat. Again, his approach to recording was laborious: a year in the making, 70 songs written, 10 tracks chosen. As on Born to Run, he weighted exuberance against muted reflection; the eagerness of Badlands or The Promised Land balanced by more contemplative numbers such as Factory, or the drowsy and dejected Racing in the Street. The record culminates in the title track; still one of the finest songs of his career.
It was this album that truly established Springsteen as the great storyteller of American heartland rock. Again, there are automobiles and interstates, girls won, money lost, but here it is raw rather than romanticised; tender, lusty, spirited, these are tales of hard work and hard luck, of resignation and resolution. Musically, it differed enormously from Born to Run’s wall of sound effect. Here, each instrument seems to enjoy its own moment: there comes the staggering force of its drums, a flash of guitar, tremor of organ, the wild flourish of piano and saxophone. It’s a quality that perhaps contributes to the sense of individual struggle, isolation and desire that runs through these stories, the sense that each of us dreams for something greater. The Promise, a 2010 film documenting the album’s making, gives extraordinary insight into Springsteen’s exacting working methods.
The River (1980)
To understand The River, its mingling of the blithe and the bitter, it helps to consider the way Springsteen once described it in an interview: “Rock’n’roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life,” he said. “But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone.” At first listen, that combination might make for a strange record. How could an album kick off with the jangle and street swagger of The Ties That Bind, parade on through the raucous Sherry Darling, the snarling Jackson Cage, the chart-pleasing Hungry Heart, and come to rest some while later on the devastating quietness of the title track, with its depiction of a shotgun wedding and a life curtailed?
With continued listening, however, it is that precise marriage of joy and coldness that brings The River its fully fleshed plausibility. A double album, several of its songs had been discarded from the Darkness sessions, while others were crafted over the many months of another extended recording session. While its emotional heart undeniably lies in its title track, along with Stolen Car, Point Blank and Independence Day, the album also carries great gusts of romance, such as the unwavering devotion of Drive All Night.
Born in the USA (1984)
Arriving in the flush of Reagan’s America, Springsteen’s seventh album could easily be taken for an act of patriotism: its title a statement of national cocksuredness, its songs an exercise in scale and volume and bullishness, its cover, depicting a blue-jeaned, white-teed Springsteen before a star-spangled banner, suggesting a certain kind of brash, imperialist, bombastic Americanness. Many of the Springsteen songs sewn into our collective consciousness hail from this album, and are perhaps the reason why so many still regard him as a grease monkey writing singalong ditties about cars and girls. But Born in the USA is in fact a vastly more complicated album than this, and precisely the reason why it’s worth listening to Born to Run, Darkness and The River before returning to its run of familiar tunes.
Far from an operation in braggadocio, its 12 tracks are in fact an unlikely marriage of rousing rock’n’roll hooks and progressive politics, born in an era of welfare cuts and hawkishness. Later, Springsteen would describe the title track as a kind of blues, an antiwar song mourning the effects of the conflict in Vietnam. Even without such context, the album is full of consummate songwriting – from the isolation and frustration of Dancing in the Dark to the sultry modern skiffle of I’m on Fire. It’s an album that feels ripe and complete. Perhaps owing more to its misinterpretation than its nuance, Born in the USA was a staggering success, spawning seven Top 10 singles. It’s still one of the bestselling albums of all time.
One for the heads
Before Springsteen became Springsteen, before the E Street Band was born, The Boss fronted another New Jersey rock outfit named Steel Mill, which had a cult following along the Shore and beyond. This live recording of Goin’ Back to Georgia, from 1969, doffs its cap to the Allman Brothers and carries just some of the swarthy, hellfire energy that earned them a reputation as a staggering live band.
The primer playlist
For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.
Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen’s autobiography, published in 2016, is an unfalteringly honest account of the songwriter’s life, his experience of depression and his relationship with his father. The audiobook version, read by the man himself, really brings his words alive.
Bruce Springsteen: ‘I think I just wanted to be great’, by Adam Sweeting
In the wake of 9/11, Springsteen wrote and recorded The Rising, an album that reunited him with the E Street Band for the first time since Born in the USA, and saw him reflecting upon the impact of the terrorist attacks. Adam Sweeting’s interview around the time of its release in 2002 is strikingly open.
We Are Alive, by David Remnick
The New Yorker’s extensive profile with the then-62-year-old Springsteen, from 2012, is an impeccable tracing of a life and career. It follows Springsteen from rehearsal to stage on the Wrecking Ball tour, taking in his marriage, his politics, and the death of E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons along the way. For further sustenance, seek out this 2017 edition of The New Yorker Radio Hour in which Remnick and Springsteen strike up conversation once more.