Bruce Springsteen victory pose
Music

Classic Albums I can’t get into: Bruce Springsteen – The River

Let’s get the rabbit out of the hat right away: if you’d ask me to name a single artist from the classic ones of pop/rock that I believe it is the most overrated, I will answer with Bruce Springsteen. His “overrateness” is so obvious to me that I’m constantly aghast at seeing how much appreciated and praised he is to this day. I can’t fathom a single reason why he would outside of his live personality and overall charisma. Two qualities that can help an artist become great but certainly aren’t the ones we should primarily look for in one. Plenty of shy and introverted geniuses in music, after all.

Born in the Usa cd cover
Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

What I am mostly surprised about his fame is how he reached it without writing any truly outstanding song. Not even one. In this he is like the lesser of Bob Dylan, who had his hits and legendary songs. He did indeed interpreted the blue-collar America, the middle class, with hymns that are a tad too populist to really resonate with me, due to me being an european. Cool if you are american but much less relevant for those living on the other side of the Atlantic.

Bruce Springsteen’s songs aren’t varied enough for my tastes

But more importantly than the themes, it is the songs themselves that leave me often deluded. Following the folk-rock tradition, they are not complex, nor technically advanced. That’s not what the genre is about. Yet, they are quite simplistic, with the only variety given by the occasional trumpet to highlight the voice of the Boss. I do appreciate simple songs sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with them per se. Bob Dylan wrote many of them, Pink Floyd, whom I love, have had a few hits that were really simple and straightforward songs, Beatles had most of their early successes thanks to songs that were easy listening and not complicated at all. It is not this where Bruce’s music fails.

The issue is that in the case of Bruce Springsteen, and let’s take it as an example one of his most acclaimed albums, other than one I’ve often tried to appreciate, The River, he does only simple songs. Not even just in this album, but throughout his long career. He is apparently unable to write complex, artsy songs that could be considered among the most original and genial of their epochs. He is content with writing songs in the same trodden path as before, happy to exploit the genre to the core, without challenging it, expanding it or being the very best in it.

Outside of The River, all his classics start with a rhythm and keep it till the end of the song, no changes, no high and low tempo interchanging, no solos. Take Dancing In The Dark, Born In The USA, I’m On Fire, Born To Run, Badlands. All of them start with an accord and use it till the very end of the song. A new voice? A couple of ritornellos? Nothing to be found here. The only novelty is the short trumpet intermezzo. The rest is the same rhythm repeated for the length of the song. Not even AC/DC, often accused of writing the very same song each time, were that boring.

Bruce Springsteen playing live

If we compare Bruce to similar songwriters as Neil Young, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, whom all dabbled in various genres even within the same songs, he looks like the kid that when the others went on to form music bands remained on the beach, playing simple songs with an acoustic guitar. It is like Bruce’s music never grew outside of the folk ballad of the mid 70s, and whenever he attempted something more modern, like in the 80s albums, he simply failed. He is not able to go outside the furrow he himself chose to debut his career with, sort of specializing in it but being also trapped by it. It happens to countless artists, no doubts, but I’m never appreciating one that can’t show his prowess in different styles and genres.

Covers better than the original

As another example, it is incredibly telling how each of the Bruce Springsteen’s covers sound better than the original. For instance, Born To Run:

The original

And compare it with the Frankie Goes To Hollywood cover

The cover

The cover is way above the original as it is more powerful and just plain entertaining. And they didn’t even had to make a very different rendition of it, just playing it better, with more “enthusiasm”, so to say. It is barely different but enough to make it much better. The Boss could have rendered it himself like this with minimal changes, but didn’t.

That is a perfect example of why I can’t get into Bruce Springsteen nor I believe he is thus a great artist. He is very specific in themes, which may hit you to the heart or leave indifferent, leaving the impression that he can’t do much outside of his personal artistic sphere of his own creation. He’s not versatile, which would be still ok if what he did was great. But it isn’t. It is on the ladder of quality on the average/good rung. Even in one of his masterpieces like The River there are very few moments that are truly good.

Probably I miss the live performance of him. That’s where he truly shines as a performer. Yet I have the feeling that if I did go to one of his shows I would come back home with an aftertaste of having watched a good performer performing mediocre material. Bruce Springsteen would have worked better as an element of a band, not the leader and main composer. As he is now and has been, he’s too little for my tastes.

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

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