Friday, February 1, 2013

Not All The Greatest Hits, But A Nice Collection of Springsteen Regardless

The Good: Decent songs, voice, lyrics, Liner notes
The Bad: Where is "I'm On Fire?!"
The Basics: In a good collection of Bruce Springsteen's works, the listener is treated to tracks, new and old that are legitimate hits or interesting stories that never succeeded on the charts.

Having recently started a pretty intensive study of Bruce Springsteen's more recent works like Devils & Dust and The Rising, I was eager to go back and see what made Springsteen a legendary singer-songwriter. In the search for earlier works, I came across Greatest Hits, the Bruce Springsteen album released in 1995 and I was surprised enough that it was only one disc (there is an album called The Essential Bruce Springsteen that is a 2 - or 3, if you can find it - disc set). I was even more surprised to discover that this album (nor the extensive follow up) have Springsteen's masterful track "I'm On Fire," which charted as high on the Billboard 200 as "My Hometown."

Regardless, Greatest Hits is an impressive collection of 18 tracks, clocking in at over 76 minutes worth of music. For the record, before listening to this album repeatedly, I only knew seven of the tracks and I remember seeing comedian Robert Wuhl (best known for Arli$$) do a rendition of "Born To Run" in one of his routines. I mention this because I'm not a scholar of Springsteen in terms of knowing the background of all of these songs, so my listen is very much a layman's opinion and fundamentally what reviewers are good for; anyone can sell a Springsteen album to a Springsteen fan. If you're not (at least not in name) this review might be worthwhile to you.

Bruce Springsteen is an American rock and roll artist, a singer-songwriter possibly best known for his songs "Dancing In The Dark" and "Born In The U.S.A." and, more recently "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Secret Garden." Springsteen is often accompanied by the E-Street Band and his sound is generally a gravelly voiced, man with a guitar style rock and roll. Honestly, is early tracks on this album - "Born To Run," "The River" - sound like Elvis Presley. "Atlantic City" sounds like it could have been Bono doing backing vocals.

For the most part, Springsteen has a distinctive style that combines the storytelling nature of folk music with the guitars, drums - and occasionally synths - of rock and roll. Quite astonishingly, "Dancing In The Dark," which is listed as his big smash stalled at #2. It's interesting when one thinks of an artist as accomplished as Springsteen never having a number one. It makes one cry when one thinks how a tool like Britney Spears has had . . . . how many? Anyway, on Greatest Hits Springsteen reveals himself as an artist who is solidly rock and roll, but with lyrics well above the curve and vocal abilities that are natural and impressive for their lack of production.

On the topic of the vocals, Bruce Springsteen reveals himself to be a talent of significant range in his vocals. Most of the vocals are safely baritone and he has a wonderful voice. On some of the tracks, he ventures into the tenor range, like his highest notes of "My Hometown." For the most part, he is a mid-range vocalist who alternatively mumbles and articulates his way through songs of terrific lyrical range.

Springsteen's lyrics are often little stories that he sings. He has decent thematic range among his Greatest Hits. His songs tell stories of growing up and starting a family ("The River"), longing and desire ("Hungry Heart"), economic depression and blue collar issues ("My Hometown"), reminiscing ("Glory Days") and love ("Secret Garden"). Some of his more eclectic works muse on dying ("Streets of Philadelphia") and reliance on guns for security ("Murder Incorporated"). This is a good thematic mix that is bold and diverse and the common threat that binds them is that all songs were written and sung by Bruce Springsteen.

And he is a talented, expressive poet. So, for example, one of his lesser known Greatest Hits is a ballad of uncertainty in his relationships. When he sings "I heard somebody call your name / From underneath our willow / I saw something tucked in shame / Underneath your pillow / Well I've tried so hard baby / But I just can't see / What a woman like you / Is doing with me / So tell me who I see / When I look in your eyes . . ." ("Brilliant Disguise"). Springsteen is able to capture essential human emotions and he does it with a remarkably precise sense of poetics and metric rhythm.

And when Springsteen tells stories, he does it quite well. It's surprising how well he develops his imagery with an economy of words. The opening to "Thunder Road" is so perfectly evocative with lines like "The screen door slams / Mary's dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / As the radio plays / Roy Orbison singing for the lonely / Hey that's me and I want you only . . ." he creates a very precise sense of place and time that any listener can easily conjure in their mind.

For a Greatest Hits album, I'm surprised by how few of the songs endure on mainstream radio. For example, while I was subjected last year to sixteen hours a day of a classic rock and roll station, they never played any of Springsteen's works. As an artist whose songs have been, like John Mellencamp's, the politically vocal sound of rock and roll capturing the working class struggle, it's a surprise the songs are not played more on mainstream and classic rock stations.

As for the idea of this album as a collection of greatest hits, it's certainly a wonderful primer to the music of Bruce Springsteen. There are instantly recognizable hits, there are songs those of us who listen to more pop-rock than modern rock may not have heard. But overall, Bruce Springsteen's Greatest Hits is a solid collection of decent songs. It's funny because when I just wrote the name John Mellencamp, I was reminded of his album Words and Music (reviewed here!) which struck me as a more solid and memorable outing. That album is more consistently great and recognizable track to track. Springsteen's Greatest Hits had a bit more in the way of peaks and valleys than that, I think. That is, to cite examples, an easily recognizable legitimately great track like "Glory Days" is followed by the virtually unknown - but decent - "Brilliant Disguise" and "Streets of Philadelphia" is preceded by "Better Days," which did not chart on the Hot 100.

That's not to say it's a bad album, it's just a little more inconsistent than some other Greatest Hits compilations from similar artists. It's a great album for anyone who likes rock and roll. It's actually decent for fans of folk music, as well, as Springsteen's writing style is distinct, deliberate and often tells stories.

The best track is "Streets of Philadelphia," the weak link is "Blood Brothers."

For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
The Rising
Devils & Dust


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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