Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Whenever Bruce Springsteen comes up in conversation, well, usually it's because I bring him up. But, when I do, I like to say that there's no single artist out there about whom my opinion has made a bigger turn-around. I grew up in a New Jersey household where Bruce Springsteen was rarely played. When I heard him, it was usually on a classic rock station, which meant it was usually "Glory Days" or "Hungry Heart" or something or other from Born in the USA. I quickly took to the idea that Springsteen had too much bravado and way too much synthesizer. It's weird my sixth-grade self was wary of machismo and muscle on a popular musician, but for many years I did truly believe Springsteen was, above all else, an act: a guy who was not so much a songwriter or artist as an empty New Jersey fixture that, for some reason, would never really go away.

Turns out what I mistook for simple bravado and sweat was bravado and sweat, but it was deeper than that. What I love about Bruce is that he has written a generation of songs that show the sweetness, vulnerability, loneliness, and fear of characters who will stop at nothing to maintain a sense of their own (traditional, often blue-collar) manhood. For many, Nebraska is where listeners first discover this type of side to Springsteen, if only because the spare production of the songs offers an emotional intimacy unlike anything else he's recorded. Nebraska was always my favorite Springsteen album because it sounded the least like Bruce Springsteen. (Although they don't put it this way, I think this may be true for many so-called indie kids.) But after coming around to the man's major works between 1973 and 1984, I believe that the songs on Nebraska are as typical of Springsteen as anything he recorded on The River or Born in the USA. The songs on all these albums share a lot. All that differs on Nebraska is the way the songs are expressed musically. Case in point: maybe "Born in the USA" could've made it on Nebraska; maybe "State Trooper" could have held its own on Born in the USA.

So that gets me thinking about how, now that I've embraced Springsteen's sound, Darkness on the Edge of Town may be my favorite of his records. I'm also wondering why so many Nebraska fans would put songs from that album over "The Promised Land", "Factory", "Streets of Fire", and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Nick Hornby once wrote that a great song with a guitar solo always beats a great song without one. I'm not with him 100% on that, but I know that a good electric Springsteen song is nothing to shake your head at. And maybe all this means is I've finally come around to the Springsteen songs that sound like Bruce Springsteen.