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.
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
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.
the Kinks’ Picture 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.