What Have You Done For Us Lately, Bruce Springsteen?
In What Have You Done For Us Lately? we examine the recent output by legendary artists. Yeah, we’re happy when they return with a new album… but really, just how happy are we? We’ll rate their recent output, and see how it has held up to their earlier work… and maybe help you to find a few gems that you overlooked.
Quick: name a few Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who have experienced creative rebirths since their induction. How about any whose post-induction output has even come close to the greatness of their early work? There are probably less than a handful in either category, but Bruce Springsteen fits squarely in both. While Springsteen’s ’90s was better than haters would have you believe (if you combine 1992’s Human Touch and Lucky Town it would be a pretty strong album, The Ghost Of Tom Joad had some great moments, “Secret Garden” was great and “Streets Of Philadelphia” won an Oscar). But still, there was a sense that his best work was in the rear view mirror and that he was a bit rudderless.
So, when did that change? Perhaps when he was working on compiling his 1998 box set, Tracks, which was comprised mostly of unreleased material that he’d left off of albums for the first two decades of his career. ’98 also saw him announce the return of the E Street Band (whom he’d issued pink slips to a decade prior) just in time for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in early 1999. His performance with the E Street Band at the induction ceremony kicked off a two year reunion tour that didn’t simply remind everyone how great they used to be. The tour put the rest of the rock and roll world on notice: the E Street Band were once again, the best band in the land. The shows that they’ve put on in the years since have become the stuff of legend as much as his concerts in the ’70s. They’ve regularly passed the three hour mark, even hit the four hour mark for the first time, and and saw Springsteen taking requests from the audience nightly. And even though not all of Springsteen’s albums or tours since then have featured the E Street Band, it’s clear that the reunion creatively recharged him. On the eve of the release of his next album, High Hopes, and the E Street Band’s induction into the Rock Hall, let’s have a look at his records since the 1999 reboot.
Live In New York City (2001)
We usually don’t include live albums in “What Have You Done For Us Lately?” because for legendary artists, they are often placeholders between albums or souvenirs of tours. And that’s all fine. But this live album, documenting the 1999-2000 tour, showed the band playing with true fire and with something to prove. Springsteen played rarities from Tracks and introduced newer songs, including “American Skin (41 Shots),” which caused a ton of controversy and showed Springsteen getting more politically outspoken. Policemen called for a boycott of Springsteen’s concerts, as the song was inspired by the death of Amadou Diallo by the New York City police. However, Springsteen also sang from the perspective of a cop: “Is it a gun, is it a knife, Is it a wallet, this is your life.” It wouldn’t be the last time he’d upset conservatives in the years to come. (He finally releases a studio version of the song on High Hopes). The album also featured a song that would a concert standard in the years to come: “Land Of Hope And Dreams” (which got a studio version on 2012’s Wrecking Ball).
Critical Response: Positive: Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, saying “Fans will likely find Live in New York City‘s porridge not too epic and not too stingy, the balance of newer material, obvious classics, and obscure trifles just right. With half the 20 tracks dating back to ’79 or before… there’s surprisingly little sense of nostalgia tripping, and that’s a miracle in itself.” Although Rolling Stone, generally huge fans of Bruce, only gave it 3 1/2 stars.
Sales: Really good, especially for a live album in the ’00s: the double album went platinum for sales of 500,000, while the DVD went triple platinum for sales of 150,000.
What stuck: “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” while “American Skin (41 Shots)” came back into the setlist at Springsteen’s shows in Australia after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“My City Of Ruins” (2001)
Bruce was the first performer on the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon on September 21, 2001, just ten days after 9/11. While many thought the song he performed was written about the attacks, he actually wrote it before that; it was originally written about the decline of Asbury Park, New Jersey. Such is the power and flexibility of a great song. He would record a much different version of the song on his next album, The Rising, and in recent years, the song has become a tribute to fallen E Streeters Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but also to anyone who you have lost in your life. On his Wrecking Ball tour, during his mid-song sermon, Springsteen would say, “If you’re here, and we’re here, they’re here” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The Rising (2002)
What other artist could really address the horror, shock and confusion of 9/11? Very few, as it turned out. But on The Rising, Springsteen delicately captured the loss of those left behind on that horrible day: in “You’re Missing,” he sings, “The evening falls, I have too much room in my bed, too many phone calls.” It’s a devastating line. But he also holds an Irish funeral on “Mary’s Place”: “Familiar faces around me/laughter fills the air/your loving grace surrounds me/everybody’s here.” The title track is a celebration of the fallen, with a determination to make the future mean something: “May I feel your arms around me/May I feel your blood mix with mine… come on up for the rising tonight.” Like “My City Of Ruins,” the songs were open-ended enough so that they aren’t chained to their time and place. With The Rising, which also marked his first album with the E Street Band since Born In The U.S.A., Springsteen produced a classic that held up to his earlier work, no easy feat.
Critical Response: Kurt Loder gave it five stars in Rolling Stone, saying “Springsteen wades into the wreckage and pain of that horrendous event and emerges bearing fifteen songs that genuflect with enormous grace before the sorrows that drift in its wake. The small miracle of his accomplishment is that at no point does he give vent to the anger felt by so many Americans: the hunger for revenge.”
Sales: Certified double platinum.
What Stuck: “The Rising,” “Lonesome Day” and “My City Of Ruins” are still frequently in his setlists, and are welcomed as greatest hits; “Mary’s Place” and “Waiting On A Sunny Day” are also live favorites. The album truly added to his already considerable repertoire. Tellingly, when Springsteen was honored by the Kennedy Center in 2009, Eddie Vedder performed “My City Of Ruins” and Sting performed “The Rising.”
Devils And Dust (2005)
The obvious thing to do after the huge success of The Rising would have been do to another album with the E Street Band. But Springsteen never takes the easy way out. This time around, he returned to the quieter sound of his (not especially commercially successful) Ghost Of Tom Joad album. While the album was interpreted as a response to John Kerry’s loss in the 2004 presidential election, many of these songs pre-dated that campaign. He promoted the album with his first solo acoustic tour since the Tom Joad jaunt nearly a decade earlier.
Critical Response: Rolling Stone gave it 4 1/2 stars, calling it “as immediate and troubling as this morning’s paper,” while The Village Voice gave it an A-.
Sales: The fans weren’t on board as much as the music critics were: it merely went gold, for sales of 500,000.
What Stuck: “Long Time Comin’,” which Bruce originally wrote for Southside Johnny’s 1991 album Better Days, sometimes makes his setlist. And Tom Jones covered “The Hitter.” Seriously. And it’s great.
So, after getting the solo acoustic thing out of his system on the Devils and Dust tour, one would figure Springsteen would be ready to rock with a band again, right? Well, he was: just not in the way that anyone expected. Bruce partied like it was 1899 with a new combo of musicians, who he dubbed the Seeger Sessions Band. Recorded over sessions in 1997 (when he was recording a song for Pete Seeger tribute album), 2005 and 2006, this marked the first time Springsteen didn’t write any of the songs on one of his albums. Instead, he took songs popularized by Seeger, and re-worked them, backed by a rather large band. And while that could sound rather dry, these guys really did bring the party, and the tour (documented on the 2007 album Live In Dublin) rocked as hard as an E Street Band show.
Critical Response: Good: Rolling Stone gave it four stars, saying, “it feels like he’s turned to the music of our shared past to find a moral compass for a nation that’s gone off the rails.” And the shrill, indie-rock-centric Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 out of 10 rating, exclaiming, “The Seeger Sessions tackles the tangle of war, strife, poverty, and unrest, but does so without sacrificing joy or release (really, the very reasons people began singing in the first place).”
Sales: Coming after Devils and Dust, fans may not have given this one a fair shake, and with songs that pre-date rock and roll by decades, it was always going to be a hard sell. Still, it went gold.
What Stuck: An expanded edition of the album included a Springsteen original, “American Land,” which has since become an E Street Band concert standard. While few of the other songs made setlists on subsequent tours, some of the members of the Sessions Band have stuck around: keyboardist Charlie Giordano was hired to fill in for the late Danny Federici, saxophonist Ed Manion is now part of the E Street Band’s touring horn section.
“Broken Radio” with Jesse Malin (2007)
Springsteen has always lent his abilities and his name to help out lesser known artists. In 2007, he recorded a duet with Jesse Malin for his album Glitter In The Gutter. It would be the first of many times Springsteen would collaborate with younger artists in the years to come, from Gaslight Anthem to Arcade Fire to the Dropkick Murphys.
On which he returned to rock, got back together with the E Street Band, and took on the Bush administration. In “Long Walk Home” he sings “You know that flag/Flying over the courthouse/Means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do/And what we won’t.” And in “Last To Die,” he quotes John Kerry, who he campaigned for a few years earlier, singing “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” But it wasn’t all about politics. Much of the album had a romantic Spector-esque sound, particularly “I’ll Work For Your Love” and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” both of which see Springsteen crooning, Orbison-style, for the first time in decades. And opener “Radio Nowhere” was the musical equivalent of his frequently-heard question from the stage, “IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE?”
Critical Response: Mostly positive, Rolling Stone gave it five stars, while Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, calling it “his best record since The River in 1980.”
Sales: Platinum, for sales in excess of 1,000,000.
What Stuck: “Radio Nowhere,” “Long Walk Home” and “Last To Die” still occasionally make the setlists.
“A Night With The Jersey Devil” (2008)
What artist don’t you think of when you think of Halloween? And what artist hadn’t done a high-concept music video in, like, forever (maybe since “I’m On Fire”)? That’s right: Bruce Springsteen! So, of course he puts out a creepy, gothy Halloween video!
“The Wrestler” (2008)
Like “Streets Of Philadelphia” was to Philadelphia a decade and a half earlier, the title track to The Wrestler was the perfect, subtle music accompaniment to a sad, moving story. This won him his second Golden Globe (“Streets Of Philadelphia” also won a Globe), but the rather out-of-touch Oscars failed to nominate the song.
Working On A Dream (2009)
Recorded during breaks on the Magic tour, this album saw Bruce delving further into the classic pop sounds of “I’ll Work For Your Love” and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” The title track was debuted at Springsteen’s solo acoustic performances campaigning for Barack Obama. But rather than a new album, Working felt more like an EP of Magic outtakes.
Critical Response: Positive, and occasionally glowing: Rolling Stone may have overstated things a bit with a five star rating, saying, “Working on a Dream is the richest of the three great rock albums Springsteen has made this decade with the E Street Band — and moment for moment, song for song, there are more musical surprises than on any Bruce album you could name, from the Chess Records vocal distortion on the bluesy ‘Good Eye’ to the joyous British Invasion pep of ‘Surprise, Surprise.'” Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, but Spin only gave it 6 out of 10, saying, it was “like the sunlit counterpart to 2007’s bleakly portentous Magic. But bliss isn’t the Boss’ bag. Without anything to push against, one of rock’s most eloquent lyricists is in the awkward position of having little of interest to say.”
Sales: Gold, for sales in excess of 500,000.
What Stuck: Not much: by the end of the tour, only album opener “Outlaw Pete” was making the setlists regularly, and at eight minutes plus, inspired quite a few bathroom breaks.
Wrecking Ball (2012)
A mostly solo rock record, Springsteen recorded this mainly with producer Ron Aniello, with some E Street Band and Sessions Band members, along with Tom Morello, making cameos. If The Rising was his reaction to 9/11, and if Devils and Dust, We Shall Overcome and Magic were his reactions to the Bush presidency, Wrecking Ball seemed to express disappointment with a lack of change under the President who he so heartily endorsed. And while he didn’t spend much time stumping for President Obama on his second campaign, he did jump aboard Air Force One for a few appearances leading up to Election Day. Wrecking Ball was Springsteen’s State Of The Union, and he didn’t like a lot of what he saw.
Critical Response: Good: Rolling Stone not only gave it five stars, but also named it their album of the year, calling it “a song suite explicitly for the 99 percent, as largehearted, and as righteously wrathful, as any album he’s made.” England’s Independent also gave it five stars, saying upon its March release, “There won’t be a harder, more challenging album released all year.” And there wasn’t. Not bad for a guy in his 60s.
Sales: Not great: the album has yet to be certified even gold.
What Stuck: We’ll see on Bruce’s setlists this year, but we’d expect to hear “We Take Care Of Our Own” and “Death To My Hometown” in his shows for a long time.
The Verdict: This very series – What Have You Done For Us Lately? - was conceived with Springsteen in mind. No artist (with the exception of Springsteen super-fans U2) has remained artistically relevant while consistently popular for decades as Springsteen has. And he’s probably the only Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who’s post-induction output would be deserving of of induction. No, every album he puts out isn’t a classic, it’s always interesting to see what he does next. And even if you don’t agree with that, you can still have a great time at his epic-length concerts.
– Brian Ives, Radio.com