Entertainment Music The essential guide to Springsteen, and his new album

The essential guide to Springsteen, and his new album

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· Music Advisor: High Hopes

In 2013 Bruce Springsteen came, sang and conquered Australia – just like the legendary New Jersey singer did in 1985 on his first Australian tour – and in 2014 the heartland rocker is heading back to Australia with a new album to tout and a fresh set of fans to capture.

In early February, The Boss will kick off his second Australian tour in a year, this time travelling across the entire country in conjunction with the release of his 18th studio album, High Hopes – an album of originals and covers that was partially recorded on the road while he was performing in Sydney last year. High Hopes includes the Springsteen’s cover version of The Saints’ classic Just Like Fire Would. 

Springsteen’s 2013 tour with The E Street Band caused spine-tingling ripples of excitement in some quarters; why wouldn’t it? One of the world’s most charismatic performers leading one of the world’s great rock powerhouses, playing shows over three hours long, from a catalogue of 17 studio albums stretching 40 years. To reinvestigate the Springsteen gems before the 2014 shows, read on.

Back catalogue

The roots of Springsteen’s earthy, celebratory brand of rock’n’roll are straightforward. Growing up in New Jersey, he saw Elvis on television and was hooked. Growing up on The Beatles and the musical shockwaves of 1960s counterculture, Springsteen drew inspiration from Bob Dylan, r’n’b, soul, and tight, righteous rock; think Creedence Clearwater or Ten Years After, not The Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. West Coast acts had come out of flower power, and downtown New York was about dirty rock’n’roll. The Jersey Shore area of Springsteen’s youth was typified by contemporaries like Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Jukes, or Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom; horns, lots of sass and swing, and in his case, lots of words.

Listening to his first two efforts (debut Greetings from Ashbury Park, NJ, and follow-up The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle), he’s exploding with lyrics, yet to find the economy of later work. While Blinded by the Light was a hit for Manfred Mann, and Rosalita remains a concert staple to this day, the damn-it-all panache associated with Springsteen surfaces only in patches.

1975’s Born to Run remains a bona fide rock classic. Springsteen painted his mythical street narratives big and brassy, but buried in the wall of sound production and the sheer sense of celebration suffusing this legendary record lie true darkness and displacement (hear brilliant, ten minute narrative closer Jungleland). If acknowledging that album’s critical and commercial success, owning Springsteen albums in the ’70s was akin to owning Tom Waits records in the ’80s – he was a hip secret, a loved favourite shared with others who understood, and a man of the streets who knew his own world.

By the mid-1980s Springsteen was already a music behemoth. Photo: Getty

This Springsteen is reflected in the mature and considered ’78 effort Darkness on the Edge of Town, the sprawling classic double album The River (pop single Hungry Heart aside, it contains some of his most epic story songwriting and punchiest rockers), and on the desolate solo acoustic set Nebraska, a dusty collection of achingly downcast songs recorded on four track cassette machine.

After that, Springsteen became a celebrity; his unshaven face and rough and ready city-boy-in-bluejeans- look as much an image of ’80s celebrity as Madonna or Michael Jackson. For longtime fans, it was strange.

The behemoth Born in the USA has survived the limits imposed by its heavy production, it’s raft of chart-sailing singles – Dancing in the Dark, the title track, I’m on Fire, Glory Days, et al imprinted into popular culture. But if Springsteen had craved success, global stardom was too unreal for a man of this temperament; 1987’s downbeat, country-tinged Tunnel of Love, a song cycle written through a failed first marriage, would be the last featuring any E Street Band members for some time.

The ’90s saw the singer out of step with public tastes, and while the simultaneously released Lucky Town and Human Touch reflected more about Springsteen’s mental state than the wider culture, 1995’s stark, acoustic John Steinbeck-inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad – compared by some, perhaps unfairly, to the brilliant Nebraska – showed an undoubted artistic determination.

Springsteen didn’t release another fully realised studio album until 2002’s well-received The Rising, recorded with The E Street Band post 9/11, largely touching on the tragedy that had shaken Springsteen to the core.

Where 2005’s Devils and Dust was often candid (hear the highly explicit Reno), it was culled from a selection of older material, so fans were well primed for the rock-radioready Magic, and it was all heartland Springsteen: big, brassy and E Street band backed, railing at an America-in-Iraq under Bush.

If 2009’s Working on a Dream pleased fans with a big Brendan O’Brien authored rock sound, it’s a more hopeful record, harking back to the exhilarating ’60s power-pop that had first inspired him.

2012’s Wrecking Ball, however, was the real deal; Springsteen’s vistas of home, country, love and friends conjured via an impressive set of driving, American/Irish folk influenced songs.

The Boss at a glance

The Classics

Born to Run: Simply personifies Bruce Springsteen.

Nebraska: The songs were so good he just released the demos as final tracks.

Born in the USA: Yes, really. A juggernaut it might be, but name a better ‘big rock record’ from the ’80s?

The Contenders:

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Downbeat, hard bidden truths put to music.

The Rising: Bruce loosens up, this one really swaggers.

Wrecking Ball: The closest thing to a 21st century hootenanny going.

Gems: Digging Deepter

Seeger Sessions: Remarkable reading of folk gems popularised by the legendary Pete Seeger.

Live ’75-’85 Boxset: Never seen Bruce? Hear this: you’ll be converted.

The Promise: Fascinating doco on the making of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band play 13 shows across Australia from February 5. 

High Hopes was released on January 14 through Sony.