As much as we all love Bruce Springsteen’s classic albums of the Seventies and Eighties, we will always modify our praise with a “but you have to see him live”. Unlike fans of Beatles or fans of Elvis or fans of just about any other major star, we are somehow afraid that the albums alone won’t be enough for people to “get it”. A lot of that is of course due to Bruce’s phenomenal abilities as a live artist - you just don’t get a complete picture without having seen him live - but there is no denying that a small part of it is also that most of those albums just lack something in terms of sonic persuasiveness. Sure, Greetings showed some promising songwriting, The Wild, the Innocent is full of imagination in the production, but do they sound all that great? Would you use them to test a brand new stereo? Probably not, and if you did, you’d probably end up disappointed, because, yes, something is lacking.
So until now we have faithfully been buying the albums on the day of release and listened to them again and again…. for exactly as long as it took Bruce to bring the new album on the road and flesh out the real versions of those songs. Then the albums would be stored on the shelf and collect dust as we listened to live bootleg recordings or, on rare occasions, officially released live versions. That was how the songs were supposed to sound.
With the release of The Album Collection Vol. 1, the question is if all this is a thing of the past. The box contains the first seven Bruce Springsteen studio albums in remastered versions. The announcement of the box didn’t raise too many eyebrows. We’ve seen remastered versions of Springsteen albums before. Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town both were released in remastered versions in their respective anniversary box sets, but they failed to garner much attention due to all the other goodies those box sets included - and due to the fact that, frankly, ordinary listeners couldn’t hear much of a difference. Not a whole lot more than could be ascribed to wishful thinking.
So no wonder even the biggest fans were a little skeptical and planned to pass on this release. Not even the advance marketing promising a completely new experience owing to a new mastering technology could convince most doubters.
In this case, however, it turns out advance marketing wasn’t kidding. There is no way around it: After listening to The Album Collection Vol. 1 neither wishful thinking nor Kool Aid are necessary: Bruce Springsteen’s first seven albums have finally come home. From the moment the first notes of “Blinded by the Light” ring through the speakers and until the last notes of “My Hometown” fade out, you realize that this is what those albums were supposed to sound like all along. This is what Bruce, Mike Appel, Jon Landau, the band, etc., must have heard as they listened to their finished work in the studio - and what they had in mind - before any mastering was done at all. To the rest of us it is indeed like hearing the albums for the first time all over again.
So what exactly happened? The keywords are clarity, warmth, and detail. It’s like the difference between a crayon drawing and an HDR photo. Where there used to be a drone of instruments, there is now clear separation allowing your ears to focus on Garry’s bass, Bruce’s rhythm guitar, Danny’s keyboard, or whatever you choose. What previously you had to strain your brain and ears to pick up, is now just there. You hear it whether you try or not. The result is a warm and organic sound that never makes your head tired. You can crank it up and it’s never too loud, or you can turn it down low and still hear the details.
Another result is an intimacy in the sound that, if you close your eyes, makes it easy to imagine you’re sitting in the studio as the song is coming to life around you. The instruments sound like, well, instruments, rather than recordings of instruments. No tape hiss, no compression. Instead lots of dynamics and lots of punch.
A detailed album-by-album review of these remasters would lead to too much repetition. Still, each album deserves some individual comments. Greetings From Asbury Park, Bruce’s debut album, was, before the remaster, probably the least satisfying album from a sonic standpoint. It just sounded synthetic and flat. Not so anymore. Even an overlooked song like “The Angel” suddenly packs a punch and makes you pay attention. “Saint in the City” sounds exactly as gritty and tough as it was supposed to.
Springsteen has sometimes said that for the first two albums they didn’t really know how to record. They were learning as they went along. But listening to the remaster of The Wild, the Innocent, you realize that maybe the biggest problem wasn’t so much the recording as the mastering. Because this new remaster has made the album come alive like never before. The epic songs from “Sandy” to “Incident” have emerged from their muffled cocoons, and “New York City Serenade” doesn’t leave much to be desired compared to recent mesmerizing, string-filled live versions.
Born to Run was deliberately made in the Spectorish wall-of-sound tradition. You weren’t supposed to hear individual instruments, and to some extent that’s one of the things that was great about it. But when you listen to the remaster you realize that on the old version perhaps it wasn’t so much a wall of sound you heard as a mud pool of sound. With the remaster the wall rises majestically, hard and well-defined, from the mud and finally brings us the definitive version of Bruce’s pièce de résistance.
Darkness on the Edge of Town might also claim that title, but probably can’t be bothered. With the remastered version, the only album with which Bruce has publicly expressed dissatisfaction regarding the sound (calling it “underplayed and oversung”), all reservations can now cease, at least from this fan’s point of view. Max’s drums finally sound like real drums, and Garry’s bass pounds on your chest like he’s standing right there in your living room.
Speaking of bass, when the remasters were announced one of the most frequently asked questions was whether The River would finally have some. The tinny sound of the otherwise much praised double album has always been a source of frustration. Well, the answer is yes, the bass is much more prominent on the remaster. It’s almost the first thing you notice on the opening “Ties that Bind”. When that is said, it is on the ballads that the remastered album really shines. The title track, “Point Blank”, “The Price You Pay”, “Drive All Night” are close to revelations and sound fresh and organic like you never thought possible.
Another question that fans asked themselves was to what extent it was even possible to remaster the Nebraska album. It’s one thing to bring it as close to the original recording as possible, but when the original recording was done on a lo-fi four-track tape recorder, there’s only so much you can do - and should do. After all, that’s what made it special. Nebraska sounding crystal clear would no longer be Nebraska. And fortunately, that hasn’t happened. In fact, if you could buy these remasters individually - and if you buy them as downloads you can - Nebraska would be the one you can skip. To these ears, the overall impression is only marginally better, and that’s probably the way it should be.
In return, the last album in volume 1, Born in the USA, is a whole other story. Of the seven albums, this may be the one with the least potential for improvement as it didn’t sound too shabby to begin with. Still, although one might have hoped for a little more enhancement of the title track in terms of clarity, the rest of the album blows the original version away. “Cover Me”, “Downbound Train”, “No Surrender” all jump out of the speakers like you’re sitting in the control room of The Power Plant. And even though a remaster is not the same as a remix, the synthesizer that can seem a little too dominating on the old version blends in much better on the remaster, giving songs like “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark” a fresh and less “Eighties” sound.
Seven albums and seven hours later, there’s not much left to say other than if you’re still holding out on buying this set or putting it on your Christmas list, that would be a mistake. If you sometimes listen to the studio albums, these will be the versions you want to hear. If you haven’t listened to the studio albums in years, you will want to hear these, and then you will want to hear them again and again.
They are that good.