Why the coolest bands in pop are bowing down before Bruce Springsteen

The Independent, 2007-05-15, by: ?
Bruce Springsteen ruled rock in the Eighties, but since then his decline has been long and painful. So why, asks Shane Danielsen, are the world's coolest bands so keen to champion the Boss?

It seems little short of remarkable, in a season dominated by breathless, momentary hype about "nu-rave" acts like Klaxons, New Young Pony Club and Shitdisco, that the presiding spirit of the two finest rock albums of the past 12 months should be a grizzled American veteran, now approaching his seventh decade. But somehow, against every expectation, Bruce Springsteen has rarely seemed more relevant.

It's a far cry from the days when Everything But The Girl felt obliged to defend their decision to include a Springsteen cover ("Tougher Than the Rest") on their 1992 Acoustic album. At the time, so closely was the singer associated with jingoistic, Reagan-era US (the result of "Born in the USA", a song about the dismal homecoming accorded a Vietnam veteran, being misread as a flag-waving nationalist anthem), that his stock slipped badly with all but his most loyal fans. His personal travails didn't help: in the mid-Eighties he first married and then divorced Julianne Phillips, relocated to Hollywood with new wife and former backing singer Patti Scialfa and drifted away from his longtime collaborators The E Street Band. He seemed restless and unfocused, and subsequent albums such as Tunnel of Love (1987) and Lucky Town (1992) struggled in vain to match the worldwide success of 1984's Born in the USA.

Yet after more than a decade in the wilderness, there is a growing sense that this is once again Springsteen's time. Ten days ago, at New York's City's Carnegie Hall, he was the subject of a tribute concert - a fundraiser for the Music For Youth charity - following in the footsteps of previous honourees Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Twenty different artists, including Patti Smith, Badly Drawn Boy and M. Ward, covered his songs, and The Boss himself appeared to perform the encore, a rousing, ramshackle version of "Rosalita" for which the entire line-up - including The Hold Steady, one of the most acclaimed of new American bands - joined him on stage.

For that group, in particular, it might have seemed like a benediction - or at the very least, a passing of the torch. (Singer-songwriter Craig Finn, according to the New York Times reviewer, "seemed about to burst.") A bar-band from Brooklyn by way of Minneapolis, The Hold Steady have been feted by US critics, and are distinguished by their ferocious live shows, their seeming disregard for cool, and by Finn's verbose, intensely descriptive lyrics, which recall with uncanny precision the early Springsteen - the Dylan-infatuated "street poet" of Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973), who gave us the delirious wordplay of songs such as "Blinded by the Light" and "Lost in the Flood", before settling for the terser, more hard-bitten sentiments of Born to Run (1975).

Finn is more grounded in quotidian reality - no talk of "raggamuffin gunners" or "go-cart Mozarts" here: he's more likely to describe teenagers "sucking off each other at the demonstration/making sure their makeup's straight" (from "Stuck Between Stations", the opening number on their most recent album, Boys and Girls in America). But his logorrhea, his delight in the possibilities of fitting narrative language to rock music, is identical. He's allusive (the same song invokes a Kerouac character in its first verse, and the suicide of poet John Berryman in its second), but never showy. And like early Bruce, he doesn't sing so much as speak his lyrics, in a gravelly drawl that manages, somehow, to ride across the dense wall of sound his band create around him.

Indeed, it's this sonic grandeur that most directly invites Springsteen references. Listening to "Stuck Between Stations" is like hearing a bonus track from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): a stomping rocker in the vein of "Badlands" or "Candy's Room". The playing is muscular, all power chords and layered hooks, while both Tad Kubler's overdriven guitar work and Franz Nicolay's trebly, arpeggiated piano fills are undeniably inspired by the playing of their E Street Band antecedents, Steve Van Zandt and Roy Bittan, respectively.

Likewise, The Arcade Fire, whose second album, The Neon Bible, looks certain to be one of the bellwether releases of 2007. Their sound is bigger than on their debut, 2005's Funeral, and their concerns more expansive; the inclinations to arena-rock previously hinted at are here nurtured and indulged. And with them, a deeper stylistic debt to Springsteen is made apparent. "Keep the Car Running" (an almost parodic Bruce title) borrows the beat from "I'm On Fire" and the melody from "I'm a Rocker"; in doing so, it practically replicates what Jody Rosen, writing in Slate and borrowing a line from "Born to Run", called "the hemi-powered drones" of classic Springsteen. Another track, "Antichrist Television Blues", sounds at first glance like the gripe of a typical blue-collar protagonist from Born in the USA or The River (1980) ("I don't wanna work in a building downtown") - but marries this discontent to a more specific, modern-day unease ("Cause the planes keep crashing, always two by two").

Why this mining of Springsteen's back-catalogue, this reiteration of his sound? And why now? Rosen makes the point that, after more than a decade on the commercial sidelines, overshadowed by hip-hop and shiny, digital pop, rock musicians are actively seeking to reclaim their place in the spotlight - and in the process, rediscovering the attractions of scale, grandeur and making a noise.

In practice, these bands' sensibilities may differ: there's nothing remotely ironic about The Arcade Fire's music - on the contrary, their sincerity is what enables them to evade accusations of bombast - while The Hold Steady seem all too aware of, yet utterly besotted by, the broader clich?s of stadium rock. Nevertheless, both The Neon Bible and Boys and Girls in America work, both as stylistic homages and as artifacts in their own right. As such, they repudiate a great deal of conventional wisdom about the diminished state of contemporary popular music.

It has in recent years become a dependable critical canard to suggest that rock music is, if not quite dead, then at least in its terminal stages - "circling the drain," as some unkind medical slang would have it. For a while, in the wake of Radiohead's OK Computer, it seemed that any rock music deserving of serious attention was obliged to reject the traditional consolations afforded listeners: few hooks (almost no melodies at all, in fact), little in the way of lyrical clarity, and certainly no liberating surge of major-chord uplift. How else to capture the spirit of this turbulent age? Rock 'n' roll was, at heart, a simple thing, and this very simplicity seemed to suggest that it had become exhausted, its possibilities used up. Meanwhile, songs that 10 years ago would have been considered "difficult", even avant garde, today own the charts. The mind-bending structural gymnastics of productions by Timbaland or the Neptunes are some of the most unexpected, sophisticated and flat-out glorious music of our time. But confronted with work as straightforwardly thrilling as the Arcade Fire and Hold Steady albums, big and bold and unashamedly inclusive in its reach, the temptation to punch the air is almost irresistible.

Yet, more than simply rocking up a storm, Springsteen's own career has been marked by artistic experiments and detours. It's telling that, with or without the backing of his E Street Band, his own music has grown steadily more intimate and reflective. Even 2002's The Rising - conceived as a response to the events of 9/11, and hailed by many critics and fans as a return to the widescreen grandeur of his mid-Seventies work - today seems a much more contemplative, even sombre set: the work of an older, more ruminative man.

The 1990s saw him become a father: he and Scialfa had three children in five years. While living in LA, he won an Oscar in 1994 for his contribution ("Streets of Philadelphia") to Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia. But his work slipped: neither Lucky Town nor Human Touch (both 1992) satisfied long-time fans; nor did they win many new converts. And the appearance, in 1998, of a four-disc box set of out-takes and early performances - simply titled Tracks - had a distinctly valedictory air, the testament of a man whose hour had passed.

But then 2005's largely acoustic Devils and Dust album saw a return to the dustbowl Americana of Nebraska (1982) and The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), and the following year's We Shall Overcome looked back further still - this time to the source, the American protest tradition pioneered by folk singer Pete Seeger. It garnered glowing reviews and returned him to prominence, particularly in Europe. Beneath the recurring motifs - the girls and cars and girls in cars - Springsteen's abiding concerns are social, rather than strictly personal: his despairing sense of love for his homeland, and his keen awareness of its squandered potential. A liberal in the New Deal sense of the word, his patriotism is knotty and complicated, and the friction between his Walt Whitman-like dream of the US, and its disappointing reality, provides the basis for much of his finest work. As such, he might be rivalled only by the less famous Steve Earle, as the most politically relevant US songwriter today.

In this sense, his legacy perhaps looms largest in Low, the other great American band of the moment, whose eight albums to date are some of the gentlest, yet most unsettling in modern American song. Like Cowboy Junkies, with whom they are sometimes (mistakenly) associated, the band seem influenced by the haunted silence of Springsteen's Nebraska album, its still, quiet air of paranoia and desolation.

Tranquil, they might be (some might say tranquilised, so glacial is the pace of a typical Low track), but they are rarely pretty. On the contrary: theirs is a harsh, comfortless beauty, and after flirting with a heavier sound on their last album, 2005's The Great Destroyer, their new set, Drums and Guns, speaks directly to a nation mired in the Second Gulf War, disenchanted by the folly and culpability of its leaders.

Cowboy Junkies, too, have a new album: titled At the End of Paths Taken, its dark, faintly despairing mood seems closely related to Springsteen's The Rising - from which comes "You're Missing", a song that they regularly cover live. Watching them play recently, they seemed at once angrier and more ambiguous than ever before; appropriately, they closed their set with a lonely, chilling version of "State Trooper" - a song about psychosis and desperation, written and originally recorded, back in 1982, by one Bruce Frederick Springsteen.

The Arcade Fire's 'The Neon Bible', The Hold Steady's 'Boys and Girls in America' (Vagrant), Low's 'Drums and Guns' (Sub Pop) and Cowboy Junkies 'At the End of Paths Taken' (Cooking Vinyl) are out now