Soul of the Departed - Springsteen Writes A New Contract
Los Angeles Weekly , 1992-04-03
By Steve Erickson
Bruce Springsteen has always been a prisoner. Sometimes he was the self-proclaimed prisoner of rock and, later, the prisoner of love, but as the '70s turned into the '80s and the '80s fell away to the '90s he became the prisoner of his own audience and impact...When people say they hate Springsteen what they usually mean is they hate Robert Hillburn. They also mean that they think Springsteen's a phony, the L. Ron Hubbard of pop music whose artistic conscience, apparently alone among rock stars, cannot afford the luxury of becoming rich and famous. People who shrugged off the gall of a very wealthy John Lennon singing "Imagine" or "Working Class Hero" find Springsteen's relatively recent elevation in socio-economic status hypocritical, perhaps irredeemable. By the lights of his news albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, Springsteen may think they have a point.
What's striking about Springsteen in retrospect isn't that his music in the '70s now sounds uneven or sometimes dated...but that he was somehow completely relevant and utterly anomalous at once, by way of a passion that matched punk's on one hand and a romanticism that defied the post-modern moment on the other... But after surviving a potentially fatal lawsuit in '76 and '77 Springsteen didn't need credentials, conducting his stormy 1978 concert tour like a guerrilla march across the American shadow lands; and his best song of the decade, "Thunder Road," flung down the gauntlet in a gesture so defiantly pure-of-heart it's endured wildly different interpretations in hundreds of performances over the years. You can pretty much divide the world into those who are still swept up by it and those who aren't.
By the end of the '70s, Springsteen's vision sounded exhausted. Even though I liked him a lot I figured it was over, that the endgame of what he could do was already in sight and two or three strong albums were as good a run as anyone got, particularly in the midst of a punk ethic which held that music wasn't about careers but rather blurts of venom and meaning that hot-wired one moment's propulsion to the next until all the moments just finally ran out. I was reconciled to a mediocre Bruce Springsteen album before he ever made one, which - with the exception of the perplexingly inconsequential live box - he's yet to produce. That in the aftermath of this apparent creative exhaustion he produced his two best albums, 1980's The River and 1987's Tunnel Of Love, pushing the scope of his music beyond its early assault on his own spiritual resignation, seemed an act of will as much as talent.
The audience's bond with Springsteen was obviously more than musical; it was uncomfortably messianic...Bob Dylan found such a relationship intolerable almost from the beginning. Springsteen, being less subject to the turbulences of genius and a nicer guy, was patient a little longer. Then he fired his band. Then he fired us.
Only rank sentimentality - to which Springsteen's audience is no stranger - can divert one from the conclusion that both were smart moves...The sound of the [E Street] band was so much a part of the Springsteen presence he finally needed to jettison it, not to launch any revolutions but to strip things down: other than a piano and backup singer of two and the vapour of a Mark Isham trumpet floating across one track, the new records are all guitars and drums that detonate like terrorists blowing up tourists cafes. Leaner and louder, crisp if never slick, less stately than the E Street Band and occasionally evoking early-'70s Stones like they might have sounded on Sun Records, the music is largely played by Springsteen himself.
In the years since Tunnel Of Love, Springsteen's authentic self-examination may have reached a point just short of critical mass; and just short of dying as an artist altogether he had no choice but to shed not only his band and his audience but the weight of his own significance. It's really the only explanation for the decision to release these 24 songs as two separate albums rather than a double, which by its very form would have taken on the dimensions of a major statement.
The evidence of HT and LT is not that Springsteen has abandoned the heroism that his audience has thrust upon him but that its now become existential rather than romantic - leading, at any rate, no congregations...I suspect the new albums will appeal most to those who have always been wary of Springsteen's mythology, bringing into the coalition of his audience a new segment of begrudging admirers to displace the yuppies who quickly retreated back to the Doobie Brothers once the furor was over and the glitterati who moved on to Mariah Carey once the trendy cachet of Springsteen's mid-'80s popularity was plumbed. It will make for better company. As Springsteen takes his new contract to the unknown audience it remains to be seen who arrives 30 minutes late and leaves 40 minutes early, but whatever the ravages of heroism and success, love and adulthood, Springsteen is certain to be there from the beginning and, as he's always done, play his destiny into submission.