Culling 30 years of music into two discs is a daunting task.
So it should come as little surprise that the recent Sony compilation, The Essential Bruce Springsteen is as flawed as it is fabulous. Over two discs and 35 songs covering each of the Jersey bard's 12 studio albums, The Essential Bruce Springsteen offers as comprehensive an overview as one might find of the Boss's 30-year career in rock and roll.
And what a career. After arriving on the scene with a pair of acoustic-tinged albums that borrowed both from the nascent singer-songwriter movement and from '60s soul and funk, carrying with him the "new-Dylan" tag that drowned so many lesser artists, Springsteen rocketed to stardom with the release of Born to Run in 1975 -- and the help of several legendary concerts at the soon-to-be-defunct Bottom Line rock club in New York and some laudatory press (Jon Landau, who would later go on to be his manager, said about a 1974 show that he saw "rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen"). Those Bottom Line shows, all raw energy and rock-and-roll savvy, resulted in what still remains a rare feat for a rocker -- Springsteen graced the covers of both Newsweek and Time in the same week, with stories proclaiming him a star. What followed were a long tour that took him across the country, a court battle with then-manager Mike Appel over control of his music and a three-year lull that could have grounded the rising star.
It didn't, of course. Bruce released Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978, which hit number five, six others hit number one, four more reached the top 10 and The Ghost of Tom Joad, considered his weakest selling disc, managed to peak at 11 on the Billboard album charts. He's also won seven Grammys and two Academy Awards. Not bad for a working class kid from Freehold, New Jersey.
Ultimately, as I said before, Essential is flawed -- we could easily argue over song choices, something that is impossible to avoid when constructing this kind of project. I wouldn't call it the definitive Springsteen collection -- I would have added about 15-20 songs, dropped the two live cuts and released it as a three-disc set with a separate, two-disc live package covering the various concert discs he has released over the years. But that is quibbling. Sony's other Essentials -- Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson and others -- demonstrate the same strengths and weaknesses. A two-disc Dylan retrospective spanning 40 years obviously can touch only on what he has done and may even be inferior to the three greatest hits collections that preceded it.
The Essential Bruce Springsteen is a better collection than Greatest Hits, released in 1995. The earlier collection ignored Springsteen's first two albums and gave short shrift to Born to Run, Darkness and The River, though it did contain four great new tracks. Essential rectifies this slight, including five cuts from the first two discs (which sound better than ever thanks to the remastering), adds "Jungleland" from Born to Run and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The Promised Land" from Darkness.
However, it still only includes two cuts from The River, the same two ("Hungry Heart" and "The River") that were on Greatest Hits, and leaves off "Prove It All Night" from Darkness and other cuts. But again this is quibbling -- especially since Sony has included a third disc of bonus material, including some B-sides ("Viva Las Vegas"), great live material ("Held up without a Gun", "Trapped", "Code of Silence") and the acoustic, bluegrass version of "Countin' on a Miracle" that serenaded concert goers as they filed out of shows on The Rising tour. The third disc, by itself, makes Essential worth buying.
What is notable about Essential is that, despite its flaws, it still offers a remarkably unified overview of Springsteen's career. Over his three decades of recording, Springsteen has managed to stay fairly close to his vision -- which The Essential Bruce Springsteen reflects. Beginning with Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. through The Rising, Springsteen has focused on the compromises the individual is forced to make to get along in society. Early on -- through the first three discs -- that theme played out in songs about lost youth and romantic sagas of rebels and broken dreams. "This boardwalk life for me is through", he sings in "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)", "You know you ought to quit this scene too".
In the operatic sweep of "Jungleland", there is the sense of desperation: "Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners" and "The Rat's own dream guns him down as shots echo down them hallways in the night". There is a "death waltz" going on "Between flesh and what's fantasy", flesh being the real, the coming responsibilities, and fantasy being the dreams of youth dissipating.
On Darkness, the tone changes, darkens, the lyrics become tighter, more focused. It is an adult record about lost youth focusing on characters who have made their compromises and are living with the consequences, but fighting, hoping for something more: "Talk about a dream / Try to make it real", he sings in "Badlands", "you wake up in the night / With a fear so real / Spend your life waiting / For a moment that just don't come".
This battle between individual desire and the constraints of community informs everyone of Springsteen's albums and parallels the thematic concerns of John Steinbeck -- something Springsteen made explicit with the release of The Ghost of Tom Joad, though it was evident from the beginning.
When looked at this way, every song has a political edge, though not in the partisan sense used by most Americans. These are not broadsides, but songs that defend his characters' dignity and integrity as they seek something more from life, even if it's just the ephemeral pleasures of the moment, "someone to talk to / And a little of that Human Touch" -- though the darkness, as always, hangs in the background. "Everybody's got a hungry heart", he sings in "Hungry Heart". "I was bruised and battered and I couldn't tell what I felt / I was unrecognizable to myself", he sings in "Streets of Philadelphia".
Ultimately, Springsteen is singing of the American condition, the final two live cuts of the Essential package -- "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "Land of Hope and Dreams" -- acting as musical coda, as mirror images of each other, "American Skin (41 Shots)" showing the darker side, "Land of Hope and Dreams" seeking the better parts of the American dream, keeping his vision focused on what each of us need to get by in this world.