He's Still the Boss: The 10 Best Springsteen Songs of the Last 10 Years
In the last 10 years, with and without the now-dwindling E Street Band, Springsteen has created some of his best music. No album as a whole approaches Born to Run’s cultural status, but select songs are equally memorable and musically vital.
I hate to be the voice of dissent -- especially when it comes to one of my personal heroes -- but this year's Wrecking Ball is far from Bruce Springsteen’s best album. The excitement built around his stark, Occupy-driven album was lost upon listening through Bruce’s repetitive lyrics and reissued compilations (Hello! We’ve already heard “Wrecking Ball”, “Land of Hope and Dreams”, and the bonus track “American Land”). Yes, it’s musically diverse and should produce some arena-rocking power when heard live, but these lyrics can’t be written by the same man whose first few albums were as poetically beautiful as anything ever put to music.
Which would you rather read?
"Crawl into my ambulance, your pulse is getting weak
Reveal yourself all now to me girl, while you've got the strength to speak
‘Cause they're waiting for you at Bellevue with their oxygen masks
But I could give it all to you now, if only you could ask"
-- "For You" (1973)
"You put on your coat, I'll put on my hat
You put out the dog, I'll put out the cat
You put on your red dress for me tonight honey
We're going on the town now, looking for easy money"
-- "Easy Money" (2012)
The first, from Greetings From Asbury Park, is a section of the 550-plus-word song I know by heart and love accordingly. The latter is one of four verses making up a 229-word entry from Wrecking Ball. Well, really it's two of four verses because he uses the lines again to conclude the number. Looking at the two verses is like night and day, and illustrates my frustration with Springsteen's latest perfectly. While I'm enthralled by his musical ambition, I'm pissed his lyrical drive has all but disappeared from his latest record.
So, should fans be worried? Is the Boss slipping in his later years? After all, his last album was no Born to Run either. Wrecking Ball may have a fight on its hands with Working on a Dream (2009) for Bruce's Worst of the Aughts crown. Both are probably his most musically diverse, but neither matched the captivating energy of his 2006 genre-breaking collaboration We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session. Is New Jersey's proudest son past his prime?
Well, probably. His prime was in the 1970s. The better question, though, is whether or not we can give up on the Boss being anything other than an astounding concert performer (reports on his recent world tour are overwhelmingly positive despite the album's mixed reviews). Despite my disappointment in Wrecking Ball, I can't write-off the rocker just yet. Why not? In the last 10 years, with and without the now-dwindling E Street Band, Springsteen has created some of his best music. No album as a whole approaches Born to Run's cultural status, but select songs are equally memorable and musically vital. I could probably list 20-30 favorites, but these 10 show why we may not want to take a wrecking ball to the man just yet.
If anyone was worried the Boss couldn't harness the collective energy of an arena after a decade away from the all-powerful E Street Band, this addictive, compelling soon-to-be tour staple quelled their fears right quick. Some of his best songs feature infectious tunes that contradict their dour lyrics ("Born in the USA"), and this one upholds the tradition proudly even as it hints at hope.
Choice Lyric: "Funny, thought I felt a sweet summer breeze / Must've been you sighin' so deep."
There's no hope to be found in this tragic piece of songwriting about a widower coping with his kids, friends, and family after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It's stark composition matches Springsteen's bare-boned lyrics. It tears you apart with its stillness.
Choice Lyrics: "Children are asking if it's all right / Will you be in our arms tonight?"
The title track to Springsteen's Grammy-winning 9/11 record is just as powerful today as it was 10 years ago. An embodiment of its title, "The Rising" gains steam as it progresses towards its climax, making it an ideal song for both a record player and a concert venue. It's a commanding song for modern America lead by an imposing voice of generations' past.
Choice Lyrics: "Can't see nothin' in front of me, can't see nothin' coming up behind / I make my way through this darkness, I can't feel nothin' but this chain that binds me."
One of only a few Springsteen songs I ever learned to play myself (I'm not the musically gifted member of my family), this acoustic number from his solo album of the same title holds a special place in my heart. Don't let the personal bias distract you though -- "Devils and Dust" finds Springsteen questioning his faith, philosophizing about the soul, and discovering a distraught emptiness at his core. In short, it's the Boss at his best.
Choice Lyrics: "I've got my finger on the trigger, and tonight faith just ain't enough / When I look inside my heart, there's just devils and dust."
With Rosie's subtle name-drop near the end of the song, it's easy to imagine "Long Time Comin'" as Springsteen's conclusion to the story of "Rosalita" started on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle way back in 1973. One of Bruce's few family stories ending on a high note as well as one of the few featuring an F-bomb, this joyously fierce piece is perhaps the most reflective mark on Bruce's later career.
Choice Lyrics: "Well if I had one wish for you in this godforsaken world, kid / It'd be that your mistakes would be your own / That your sins would be your own."
6 - 10
To me, Magic was Springsteen's best album of the Aughts (and not just because it was the best concert experience of my life). Packed with incredible imagery, austere stories, and potent sound, the record rocks in every way you want it to. "You'll Be Comin' Down" is the most poetically gorgeous piece in the lineup. It's hard to set aside.
Choice Lyrics: "Like a thief on a Sunday morning / It all falls apart with no warning / Satin sky's gone candy-apple green / The crushed metal of your flyin' machine."
This may be the most deceptively depressing song ever put to paper. Its cruelty is in part due to Springsteen's affection for joyful music contrasting against bleak lyrics, but here he takes it even further. "Don't worry, darlin'", he repeats again and again, only to follow the comforting phrase with the knowledge that they're "livin' in the future, and none of this has happened yet". The lyrics below break your heart, yet the Boss presses on with an extra loud sax solo by the Big Man and a refrain of "Na na na na" over and over to drill in his point.
Choice Lyrics: "My faith's been torn asunder / Tell me: is that rollin' thunder? / Or just the sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under?"
Another heartbreaking anthem, "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" sounds like a light, breezy summer song about pretty girls. Without listening closely, it very well could be that and it would still be terrific. However, the last few lines of the story show a darker side of the story. Thankfully, Springsteen provides his character with a rare, positive outlook on his travails, breaking the album's cynical streak.
Choice Lyrics: "She went away. She cut me like a knife / Hey beautiful thing, maybe you just saved my life / In just a glance, down here on Magic Street / Love's a fool's dance -- I ain't got much sense, but I still got my feet."
Though this doesn't fit in with anything else found on the overtly optimistic album, "The Wrestler" is a beautiful example of how unadorned songwriting can still be influential when meticulously structured. Written for the Darren Aronofsky film of the same name, Springsteen's track deserved the Golden Globe it won and the Oscar for which it wasn't even nominated.
Choice Lyrics: "These things that have comforted me I drive away / This place that is my home I cannot stay / My only faith's in the broken bones and bruises I display."
OK, he got one right. "Death to My Hometown" is a uniquely powerful bit of songwriting when paired with its aggressive musical backing. It's direct, featuring shotgun blasts, a refrain of "no's", and resonating diction throughout. Hearing it as a follow-up to "My Hometown" from Born in the U.S.A. only adds to the song's power.
Choice Lyrics: "I awoke from a quiet night. I never heard a sound / The marauders raided in the night and brought death to my hometown."
"Wrecking Ball" - Live at Giants Stadium (2009)
"My Lucky Day" – Working on a Dream (2009)
"Terry's Song" - Magic (2007)
"I'll Work For Your Love" - Magic (2007)
"Old Dan Tucker" - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions"(2006)
"How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session (2006)
"All the Way Home" - Devils and Dust (2005)
"Lonesome Day" - The Rising (2002)