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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

 

Because Bruce Springsteen has been on such a run—truly his best since the defining period of the 1970s—and because he has been everywhere in recent years (stumping for presidential candidates, winning new fans with a thunderclap of a performance at the Super Bowl), it’s easy to forget how many years he spent in the wilderness. By the late 1980s, he had started making downright mediocre albums and continued to do so throughout the 1990s. He also dissolved the E Street Band in 1989 and wouldn’t reconvene them until 1999. But with The Rising in 2002, Magic in 2007, and now Working on a Dream, Springsteen and company seem to have acquired a whole new vibrant language (aided by superstar producer Brendan O’Brien on all three), and there’s a fresh expansiveness and propulsion in Springsteen’s music.

Classic E Street seemed to pull from clear points on the musical compass at times—heartland rock, gospel, soul, doo-wop, old time rock and roll. But the new E Street music is dense, big and of no clear pedigree. This is Phil Spector for the new millennium, busting out of mono and into Technicolor, but with fat guitars leading the way. The title track epitomizes this, but at the same time is lovely and controlled, as if there’s something powerful hovering just below the surface.

Much will be made of Springsteen’s Obama association provoking the positive cast to this album, and certainly there is some of that. But what about the grand, freaky and ominous Western “Outlaw Pete,” a song that nothing in Bruce’s canon could predict? Then there’s “The Wrestler,” the song from the Mickey Rourke movie of the same name, which toils around in ambient spaces for a stretch before slowly unfurling into one of the most gorgeously dispirited and broken-down songs he’s written. This is Bruce’s other voice that he usually saves for solo albums—muttered in the first person and dredging up a primordial and universal sadness.

On “Last Carnival,” another initially spare track that swells to euphoric proportions, Springsteen bids goodbye to fallen E Street member Danny Federici, who succumbed to melanoma last spring. This points to the delicate balance of Springsteen: He can pile on all the cheese and grand gestures and make it all work because the humanity is always palpable, and convincing. If that rings like a platitude, it’s because I have no other way to describe it; I actually believe that Bruce is more of a cipher than public notions of him will allow. He is able to hide from us in full view (unlike Dylan, who hides by . . . well, hiding), and we rarely glimpse the true personality of the artist.

I’m convinced I don’t know anything about the man who worked through a depression by pouring out the lo-fi highway moans of Nebraska. And I was certainly disavowed of any presumptions when I sat only a few rows back and watched him dramatically howl Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” in 2005. But he did let something slip during his recent Rolling Stone interview that showed us a little bit—a hint at proportions of the iceberg beneath the water. Talking about his teen years, he remembered, “I was very isolated. . . . And it makes you mad.” Then he added, back in “public Bruce” mode, “But if you learn to organize your desires and demands and shoot them into something that is more than just being about you, you start to communicate. I wanted to be a part of the world around me.” Take that as you will.

If the Springsteen album highlights the fact that humanity is slipping out of much of popular music, then that thesis is supported by the chanty, soulless dance rock of Franz Ferdinand’s new album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, which I would characterize as sleek and well-executed but ultimately hollow. The stylish and arch post-punkisms that the Glasgow group rode to success were bound to dead-end at some point. Franz Ferdinand knew that and shifted into painstakingly crafted and debauched dance-pop. But bright spots aside—the sinewy, world-music tinged “Send Him Away,” for example—this feels like an album that no one will be listening to by the time March rolls around. The mind-numbing repetition of the lead single, “Ulysses,” is certainly evidence of that, though it manages to conjure in my mind snatches of both Berlin-era David Bowie and Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger.

Altogether much more impressive is Mark Olson and Gary Louris’ Ready for the Flood, which finally brings together the two old Jayhawks compadres. Olson’s charmingly adenoidal prairie warble has always sounded naked to me without fellow Minnesotan Louris’ high soft purr to ballast it. And Louris’ post-Olson Jayhawks work—as well as his recent solo album—never matched the archetypal sound he had built with Olson. This album has none of the soaring intentions of the Jayhawks; rather it is a humble effort that hews mostly acoustic. But the songs: man, such songs. These are subtle but sophisticated miniatures: the torchy, plodding beauty of “Bicycle” (so far my favorite song of the young year); the sparkling, broken beauty of “Turn Your Pretty Name Around.” Louris and Olson’s best work seems to sweep you up in an ongoing conversation, and the latter song opens with the lines, “And then came disappointment/ A path for my feet,” pulling you straight into its wake. This is an album that is subdued in all of the right ways and painted in startling emotional colors.

Lastly, the KinksPicture Book is a whopping 138-song box set of their work, including alternate takes and rarities—and it tells quite a story. This is really the first collection to cover the full span, from the ’60s to the ’90s, but predictably it’s the earlier stuff that sustains attention. There’s probably too much to say in this space—but I do want to make the point that 1964’s “All the Day and All of the Night” pretty much initiated the punk era at a time when supposed proto-punkers the Stooges and the MC5 were just beginning to discover funny hairs on their bodies.

 

 

 

 


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