Bruce Springsteen performs at the Olympic Stadium in Munich in 2013. Photo: LUKAS BARTH/dpa/Alamy Live News
Bruce Springsteen’s new release Only the Strong Survive is a rollicking record of soul covers. But in these wild times, wouldn’t it be great if the Boss was talking about the biggest issues of the moment?
It’s something he’s done brilliantly in the past, sneaking acerbic analysis into chest-thumping anthems. Packed full of social commentary, these are his essential political albums.
Bruce Springsteen: His top five essential albums that tackle big issues
1. The River
By the time The River was released in 1980, Bruce Springsteen was one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll artists in the world. Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town perfected the Boss’ blend of epic anthems. Tales of racers and riders and out-of-reach girls. The characters were dreamers, rakes and rebels – who were now finding a cause.
The River acts as a bridge between right-on songs recorded so far and the righteous ones to come. Independence Day makes the personal political. Hungry Heart is a radio-friendly hit but with a heart of broken darkness.
But it’s the album’s title track that took Springsteen’s song writing to another level. The River flows around a doomed romance, a crippled and crippling economy and stunted dreams. The song isn’t as much about a failed relationship as a failed society.
The road Springsteen had started down grew bleaker by 1982 when Nebraska was released. Downbeat songs about outcasts and killers. Not even the E Street Band to add a little lightness.
When the chorus of the catchiest tune, Atlantic City, starts: “Now everything dies baby that’s a fact,” you know we’re in hopeless territory. Debts to pay, love gone cold, nightshifts, the urgency of escaping to who knows where. Hard people in hard times.
3. Born in the USA
The best-selling album of 1985 was possibly also one of the most challenging of the year. Bruce Springsteen combines the anthemic with the polemic in a way no other artist has been able to do.
The title track is an outraged anti-war song with a message as urgent as its biting beat. The critique of nationalism was lost on Reagan and Trump who both associated themselves with the song at various times.
Working on the Highway, I’m Goin’ Down and My Hometown cemented the Boss as spokesperson for the blue-collar worker. And even one of his most popular songs, Dancing in the Dark, is more about the darkness than the dancing – even taking into consideration Courtney Cox’s appearance in the music video.
The world had been rocked by the time The Rising was released in 2002. The 9/11 terrorist attacks had prompted a reckoning of what America represented and what it meant to be born in the USA.
My City of Ruins was written in the aftermath and memorably opened a fundraising concert a few days after the event. Here it is lacking that immediate rawness, but there’s still the hope of rebuilding and rising again. Nothing Man, Empty Sky and You’re Missing take on huge significance given the context.
This was catharsis on a CD when it came out. Once I met Michael Moore at a book signing. I used that 20 seconds standing in front of him to ask what his favourite Springsteen album was. He answered Darkness on the Edge of Town (though it could have been Tunnel of Love). Did he like The Rising? “There’s some good stuff on that,” he said, which sounds like political approval to me.
5. Wrecking Ball
Forget the Hulk, nobody is as powerful as Bruce Springsteen when he gets angry. And Wrecking Bull is full of righteous rage. It swung in after the financial crisis had shaken the foundations of the US and world economy. We Take Care of Our Own and Death To My Home Town is sticking up for the little guy again, or at least pointing out that we don’t always do that. Search for Wrecking Ball song now and you get scantily clad Miley Cyrus, but Springsteen was almost having just as much fun imagining the destruction of the financial system.
“Hold tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fears.” A good message, as relevant today as it’s ever been. Which means it’s a shame that given the times we live in, with conflict, political division and economic hardship, Springsteen’s new album is one of covers.
Maybe it’s the escapism we need as much as anything, but there are so many big issues he could get his teeth into. I’d especially like to hear a song about dynamic ticket pricing at concerts.
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