Listening to Springsteen's new album track by track, Jude Rogers finds much to admire, but would a little less showboating next time, please
1. RADIO NOWHERE
1.38 With a crease in my brow, a rockin' finger in the air - how I'm going to type I've no clue - and a red hankie in my back pocket, I say goodbye to GU's track-by-track review series today with a proper world-straddling star. The Boss is back with the E Street band for the first time since 2002's The Rising, back to the growls and guitars, rather than the Seeger Sessions strummery of recent memory. And Lord, this opening track is an absolute BEAST. Imagine Blue Oyster Cult's opening riff to Don't Fear The Reaper but even better (I know! That's impossible!) fed through ten levels of overdrive, but melting into a rich, melodic tune that you could imagine a softer soul like Morrissey covering quite nicely. But forget Moz's arch-eyebrowed vocals - Bruce's delivery has always been willfully direct, adding everymannish weight to the rock theatrics.
0.48 "I was spinnin' round a dead dial/Just another lost number in a file/Dancin' down a dark hole/Just searchin' for a world with some soul." Boss Lesson 1: Establish communion with the common man, and, you know, the search for truth.
1.32 "I want a thousand guitars/I want pounding drums." Boss lesson 2: Introduce the rawk. Yes, Bruce doesn't always introduce it - go back before the Seeger Sessions to gentle songs on The River, Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad - but our rugged friend has always been able to crank it up well.
1.58 Boss Lesson 3: Squeeze in middle-eight key change - this is how it's done, Westlife! - and a HUGE Clarence Clemons sax solo. Fail to air drum to this and you*re comatose.
2.16 Boss Lesson 4: introduce some myth and mystery. As well as calling your song Radio Nowhere, how about a lyric about you "driving through the misty train/Searching for a mystery train"? It'd be easier to find a real one, granted - unless this is a piece of prime satire about Bruce's experiences with GNER.
3.07 Boss Lesson 5: Repeat a rockin' lyric - "I just want to hear some rhythm" and fade out. Boys and girls: this is an absolute ball-breaking CLASSIC, an object lesson in how ROCK!
2. YOU'LL BE COMING DOWN
0.25 Right, some deep breaths: Let's pick apart what's tricky about the Bruce oeuvre for a minute. Firstly, we all know the misconceptions: Born In The USA was a post-Vietnam rant that got warped by "the man" into a patriotic battle cry, yadda-yadda-yadda. Secondly, the world Bruce created full of stolen cars, dark highways and broken hearts has become so entrenched in pop culture it*s become a rock cliché - albeit one that he often manages to subvert or supersede with a big tune (cf Radio Nowhere) or a subtle lyric. For instance, this track starts with a nice visual line - "white roses and misty blue eyes/Red mornings, then nothing but grey skies" - suggesting the colours of the American flag followed by wishy-washy dullness; a very subtle comment about his country's diminishing values. Tick!
1.28 Then he turns out soft, simple lines about society*s attitudes towards beauty: "You'll be fine long as your pretty face holds out/Then it's gonna get pretty cold out." Adding lines like this to the E Street Band's rock arrangements give Bruce's songs their clout.
3. LIVIN' IN THE FUTURE
1.23 But hang on a tic - isn't this Hungry Heart off 1980's The River? It sounds a lot like it. Here's my main concern with this album. Can the E Street band move on in terms of their sound? And does Bruce have anything new to say about America, or is he just covering old ground? If the band can't, and Bruce is on autopilot, should we be disappointed? I'd say yes, given how Bruce's last few years have promised so much - his involvement with Rock Against Bush nailing his contemporary political colours to the mast, and his Seeger Sessions work casting new light on the nuts and bolts of American folk. This is simply a facsimile of the music Bruce made after Vietnam for a world living in the shadow of Iraq - not as clever as it could be when there;s barely a nod to the years that have passed.
4. YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY
1.30 At least they're playing with arrangements a little here - running passages from violas and cellos darting around Bruce's big, burring vocal, and soft shaking bells adding some strangely festive warmth.
3.16 And this ending is a classic of Springsteen concision - "Your flag it flew so high/It drifted into the sky" - with the sound of distant church bells. God damn you, Bruce. I start pulling your songs apart, then you offer a breathtakingly simple metaphor about American pride in both a lyric and a sound. You're a rotter.
5. GYPSY BIKER
2.52 This song's rather dull, though. Lots of lyrics hinting at war and a possible early reading of Naomi Klein's book on Disaster Capitalism - "the speculators made their money/On the blood you shed" - but a tune that drifts aimlessly into the sky like that flag a whole track ago.
6. GIRLS IN THEIR SUMMER CLOTHES
0.48 "My jacket's on, I'm out the door/And tonight I'm going to burn this town down." I suddenly know what's wrong with this album. Bruce Springsteen is 58. He's four years older than my stepdad. If my stepdad said he was off down the Kingsway in Swansea to burn something with his jacket on - a nice anorak from Debenhams, probably - I would laugh in his lovely Welsh face. I know rock'n'roll is all about escapism, myths and dreams, but this line is desperately contrived; the stuff of a proper mid-life crisis.
7. I'LL WORK FOR YOUR LOVE
0.54 And now Bruce*s narrator has fallen for a barmaid. "The pages of Revelation lie open in your eyes of blue," coos the creepy old swine. That's a marginally worse chat-up line than "do you fancy a pizza and a shag" in my book.
0.32 "I got a rabbit in my hat/If you want to come and see." Put it away, you pervert!
2.05 Ah, he's redeeming himself slightly at last. A shimmery zither, a lone violin and strange ghostly vocals are emerging from the murk, with lyrics about ghosts in the trees suggesting the weight of the years.
9. LAST TO DIE
0.01 Although that title's another stab at immortality.
1.02 Ah no, this is Bruce's Iraq song. "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" he sings, to the E Street's rollicking beat.
4.15 That's as close to the subject as we get, though. There are some woozy lines about stacked bodies appear, but we don't know by whom or why.
10. LONG WALK HOME
0.32 Bruce is still peerless when he's playing with the imagery of the seasons, though. "I could smell the same deep green of summer," he purrs here, breaking my cynical heart like a silver spoon on an eggshell.
4.23 But the E Street band make this sound desperately overwrought. They're a talented bunch, naturally - tight, clean, shiny and bright - but surely they could play with texture and sheen occasionally, to quell the sense of album fatigue? On this evidence, apparently not.
11. DEVIL'S ARCADE
5.01 But on this evidence, quite the contrary. Here they move elegantly between sounds that are restrained, moody, sweet and sharp, making lyrics like the gorgeous line - those first evenings of perfume and gin - resonate more profoundly. I told you they could do it.
12. [TERRY'S SONG]
1.01 But this record's at its best when the band fades into the dusk. Here, at the album's end, after 20 seconds of silence, comes an impossibly lovely secret track (although if you're playing the album through iTunes like me, the secret is annoyingly ruined). A tribute to Bruce's lifelong friend and working partner Terry Magovern, who died in his sleep this summer, it's just Bruce, his guitar, a harmonica and a piano. It doesn't sound contrived, overwrought or overadorned. "All I know is that I woke up this morning and something big has gone," sings Bruce, with heartbreaking simplicity. "When they built you brother, they broke the mould." More of this next time, Mr Springsteen - personal, direct lyrics that touch the heart, plus less delving into the past and more digging into the present. Because, frankly, you're still one of our very best, and, frankly, we need you.
He's still the Boss - but next time less showboating in front of the team, and going back to your fabulous share prices in the 80s, pretty please. A much more personalized service for the late Noughties would be so much nicer.