I was worried that I was not going to finish this project by Friday, when I will finally be seeing the Boss live. What helped was that I generally really like his most recent work. I did a listen of Dylan's albums two years ago, and there were wild swings in quality. Listening to his whole catalog, I was struck by how Springsteen managed to maintain such a high standard. While I won't be revisiting some of his albums, none of them could be called bad.
Springsteen has embraced his status as a living legend in his most recent phase. He wrote a memoir, told his story on Broadway, and hosted a podcast with Barack Obama. He has also been less predictable in his musical styles, which I think has really paid off. He is one of the few rock legacy acts (along with Dylan) who is making new music worth listening to that explores new directions.
Springsteen on Broadway (2018)
I said before that his 80s live box was the only live album I was going to cover, but this one demands to be addressed. A rock star on Broadway seems like a contradiction in terms, but his autobiographical show fits with his turn inward, also marked by his excellent memoir. After a flurry of activity from 2001 to 2014, Springsteen took a step back from new music and toured the side roads.
I regretted not seeing this show, and for that reason never listened to it or watched the film because of the intense FOMO. I can say now that it is a true career highlight. Springsteen's memoir proved he's a great storyteller outside of songs, and his stories here make a similar impact. His intro to the acoustic version of "Born in the USA" is one of the most moving things I have ever heard. He talks about reporting to the draft office the same day as two other musicians he knew in the Jersey Shore scene. Springsteen was not taken, but his friends were, and neither of them came home from Vietnam. He then wonders about the person who took his place. The rendition of the song that follows will just rip your heart out.
There's also plenty of humor. He starts by admitting he never worked a day in a factory. At first this seems flippant, then you realize he was trying to articulate his parents' experiences. The vignettes of working-class life in small-town Jersey are incredibly vivid. Also, as I have said before, Springsteen might be at his best when it's just him and an acoustic guitar. I will definitely be returning.
Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)
Western Stars (2019)
I saw a lot of praise for this one when it came out. I listened to it for the first time on a Western road trip, anticipating a perfect marriage of sound and experience. Unfortunately, it left me flat. I was excited to hear Springsteen dig into a more country sound, since that had always been an under the radar influence on his music. For some reason, it felt flat.
For this project I listened to it while going on a long walk, and it totally clicked. Much of the record feels like a concept album about a drifter alone out west, and it drew me in. Many of the songs have an understated beauty to them, like looking at the Western sky. I am probably the target audience, considering that I grew up in rural Nebraska right where the Midwest meets the West.
At the same time, this album has some of Springsteen's 21st century album issues. Some songs are a little flight, and the production is too distracting in others. Those issues don't sink the album, one that successfully looked to new artistic vistas.
Rating; Four Bosses
A Letter to You (2020)
In the beginning of the pandemic here in Jersey they did a telecast honoring and fundraising for health care workers (I don't know if it was televised elsewhere.) Various people Zoomed in from their homes. Jersey guy John Stewart hosted, but the highlight was Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa playing and singing some songs on acoustic guitar from their living room. In that very dark time, when hundreds of people in my state were dying every day, it was a bright spot of hope. This album came out of that time, and out of a demand to make sense of it. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of songs about death and aging.
"Ghost" particularly good. Its hard-rocking surface almost obscures the theme of missing a departed loved one. Springsteen has been performing it at every show on his current tour, with good reason. We all remember that pandemic feeling of intensely valuing life and the people in it brought on by the knowledge of life's fragility. Springsteen appropriately reunited with the E Street Band, and this song and others feel like more "band" efforts than he has had in awhile.
As with his other recent records, there are some inconsistencies but this time around the production style feels much better suited to the material.
Rating: Four Bosses
Only The Strong Survive (2022)
This is his second covers record, with the first being The Seeger Sessions. While that album reinterpreted the classics with flair and originality, this one mostly plays it straight. It's not nearly as good, but Springsteen's deep love for the soul material he sings at least makes this listenable. The backing sound and production are more fitting for a karaoke machine, but the Boss can still make a meal out of these songs.
Springsteen's earliest records are steeped in R&B, and it's something still alive in his live sound but not really on his records since Born to Run. It's great to hear him in this mode. The songs might not be interpreted originally, but I commend the Boss for his choice of tunes. I also think he breaks out of karaoke into something more stunning with his versions of "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Seven Rooms."
This is a slight album but a fun performance. To quote an earlier song of his, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."
Rating: Three Bosses