19. Bruce Springsteen

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Bruce Springsteen? He comes from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and is proud of it. That should tell you something right there. I’ve been to Asbury Park, and I even played a gig there as a musician. It’s fucking dump. It’s the kind of place you leave as soon as you’re able to. It’s not the kind of place you sing about unless you’re singing about how depressed and depressing it is. What else? He calls himself The Boss. Forget that. He’s sure not the boss of me! His band are the E-Street Band, but the only band member I can name is Clarence Clemons on sax, and I already ripped on that guy a few posts back. His sax style is the worst. I want to punch it. It is not my wish to personally hurt Mr. Clemons per se, but I want to take a big metaphorical fist and punch that whole style of sax playing.

As for Springsteen’s songs, his Born In The U.S.A. album was a big deal when I was a teenager, so the title track and “Dancin’ in the Dark” and… was it called “Glory Days”?… those were on the radio all the freakin’ time. I was not amused. Did he also have one called “I’m On Fire” around the same time? In my world, it would have been much cooler to have Gang of Four or Fad Gadget on the radio, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen. In the Great Lakes region of the U.S.A., I would have settled for Depeche Mode at that time, but they were still too weird and underground at that point. They didn’t get any U.S. airplay for quite a while longer. I’m sure I’ve absorbed some of Bruce’s other music along the way, unfortunately. But I have to admit – this hurts, but I’m gonna be real vulnerable for you people – I kinda like the song “Born To Run”. I know, I know, this is costing me a lot of my counter-culture cred here. I’ll discuss that tune below since it’s the title track from this post’s album choice.

As always, this series is all about tabula rasa listening. I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today. The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions,written as the record was playing, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I’m taking it at face value with no baggage. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Version: this time I’m listening to the HD Tracks master in 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sample rate. Let me tell you a few things kids: this HD audio shit is snake oil. I’ve been working in pro audio since 1989, and I teach digital audio theory at a college level. In a double-blind listening test (with playback levels matched and when you don’t know which version of something you’re hearing at any moment) you can’t tell the difference. These high-res files offer no boon to the listener. It’s a sham for the audiophile purists who also think mistakenly think that buying golden audio cables or something is going to make their home hi-fi sound better. It’s all placebo effect. There is actually a lot of benefit to doing the recording and mixing of an album at a higher resolution (I always do), but once the record is done, there is nothing lost by bouncing it to so-called “CD quality” (16-bit, 44.1kHz) for distribution and playback. The benefit in higher resolution is only gained during editing, processing, and mixing, and doesn’t offer anything useful during playback. (That said, data compressing to a lossy format like MP3 absolutely does degrade the audio noticeably). But the people who do the mastering for the HD Tracks releases sometimes take a fair amount of care with their work, and also get less pressure from record labels to detrimentally screw around with the dynamics (I have also heard HD tracks releases that were brick-walled, so there’s that). If these high resolution records sound better to you than normal resolution records, it’s because the people mastering them know who their audience is and they aren’t screwing around. But it isn’t actually because of the resolution. We would live in a much better sounding world if the better HD Tracks masters were just downsampled to CD resolution for all releases instead of… ok, I’m gonna rant about record labels, amateur engineers, and the loudness wars here. No, I’m not. I’m gonna stop.

Let’s torture ourselves with some Springsteen instead.

Bruce Springsteen
Born to Run (1975)
Version: HD Tracks (2014)


Thunder Road
Ha! Right before playing this record, I was listening to the mighty Roy Orbison. Took Roy off, put on Bruce, and the first stanza on the first song of this record colors its narrative with the line “Roy Orbison singing for the lonely”. We’ve got voice, a piano, and some harmonica in the intro as we meet the narrator and his girl Mary. Band kicks in right on schedule, but the piano doesn’t give them any room. The mix engineer needed to have dipped the piano down a bit when the rest of the band started playing. It overwhelms the arrangement for the rest of the song. The piano needed to have been up and in front when it was the only thing accompanying Bruce’s voice, but when everyone else starts playing it’s just in the way and distracting. Even Bruce’s voice is struggling to be heard above the piano. Later in the song when the dreaded Clemons sax is meant to be featured, it is barely audible. What’s going on with the lyrics… this is a pretty wordy song full of some quasi-evocative imagery, but some of it hasn’t aged well. Bruce is asking his girlfriend (who has had her share of suitors) to go for a ride in his car because life sucks and going for a drive is the answer. I guess in 1975 that might have seemed like a good idea – we were still under the sway of the dregs of the American mid-century car-culture, encapsulated in the idea that the road is freedom. In 2022, this idea just seems dated, like he’s going to blow a lot of carbon into the atmosphere for no good reason. Take fewer trips people. Drive less.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Unlike “Thunder Road” which felt like a warm up for “Born To Run”, this one has an R+B feel, with an attempt at a bit more of a groove (not sure if it succeeds) and a widely-panned horn section. Having those horns spread out so widely across the stereo field is distracting. I’d pan them so that they feel more together, tighter, like a horn section would be on stage, and then maybe balance them opposite the piano, to be positioned on the other side. Bruce’s voice sounds like he’s straining. It rough, gravely, and expressive, but still kind of controlled. Like he’s fighting himself. Song doesn’t really go anywhere. Just does one thing for a while, except for this weird reverberant bridge where Bruce starts hollering “And I’m all alone, I’m all alone” as if from down the hall, and in a really odd tone of voice. This song is filler. Adjust your car use so that you fill up the tank less often.

This one jumps right in with a big drum fill and another feel similar to the title track. Thematically it’s the same: working a shitty job, daydreaming of your perfect Stepford girlfriend, and looking forward to taking off with her in your car. The band are tight and energetic here. The performance isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of diversity in the musical arrangements and lyrical ideas. I’m already kind of over this record. Two of the three songs have been functionally identical, and the title track is destined to be more of the same. The mix is just crap. Everything is just kind piled on top of everything else, there’s very little separation or clarity. The overall tonality is mid-rangey and murky. Geez, how would a worse master of this record sound? Bruce would want you to buy an electric car. Everything is moving in that direction.

Another wordy song with a long intro and a more portentous tone. Bruce and his friend or girlfriend (or maybe his friend who he wanted to be his girlfriend) Terry are growing up on the streets during “one soft infested summer” (what does that even mean?). Seems that growing up, or maybe the presence of another fella, pulled them apart. Their cars are mentioned. The track has that melancholy nostalgic feel to it, your first heartbreak and all that jazz. Band are tight once again and build the track adequately. This whole song is a murky mess though. This record is awful sounding. That slap-delay on Bruce’s voice toward the end of the song is just clumsy. Fossil fuels are killing us all.

Born to Run
At risk of repeating myself: one thing I never noticed about this song is how miserable the recording is. Someone really fucked this record up. Seems that Bruce wasn’t exactly a superstar yet when this was made, but it wasn’t his first album either; there must have been some budget in place. What works for me in this song is the exuberance and energy that the band bring to the recording. Their performances have sounded (at the very) least awake – and usually much better than that – on all of the songs so far, and on this one they really turn in a heartfelt take. It’s all drive (ha) and energy. Hearing it in context with the rest of the record for the first time ever, it does seem like the lyrics are just more twists on Bruce’s same themes, and the arrangements bring back the same sounds that we keep hearing. Really, I wish I hadn’t listened to this album. Experiencing all the second-rate attempts at essentially making this same song over and over sort of diminish the impact of the song “Born to Run”. Lyrically, we’ve got repeats of the go-to concepts of car culture, freedom from a dead-end life, and another dream-girl (this one is Wendy; we met Mary and Terry in two previous drafts of this song’s concepts). Bruce even name-checks the American dream in this one. This final draft of his thesis is the strongest version of Bruce’s obsession with chasing these ideas over and over again. Even little moments like the key change when he sings “Sprung from cages out on Highway 9” are effective songwriting tricks that he could have employed more often. Bringing the Hammond in mid-verse (when he sings “Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims”) are the super-common little ideas that add musical interest. The glockenspiel is a nice arrangement touch that gets us one step away from rock instrumentation without going further than would be appropriate for what this band does. Gotta love the tremolo rockabilly guitar too, and the wah-wah guitar that comes in at 2:11 (“Beyond the palace…”). The drummer shows his worth in the bridge beginning at 2:37. Bruce has been polishing this idea for a while (maybe even on prior albums? I don’t know), and his warm-up efforts are found all over this album. Here the ideas come together in their best version. All he wants to say on this album is encapsulated in this successful song, and the rest of the sketches songs really become redundant. Increased public transportation infrastructure is one of many paths toward our survival as a species.

She’s the One
Another tragically shitty recording that really feels unnecessary after everything we’ve heard so far. Over nice Hammond arpeggios that later turn into piano arpeggios, Bruce tells us about meeting the perfect girl, but this one doesn’t get a name. But he does mention her French cream and her French kisses. What’s he doing with a socialist from Europe? She probably rides the Metro. Bruce needs to get back to the freedom-loving ‘Murican girls and their cars. But, in the long run, the object of your desire is going to be more impressed with your heart and your mind than with your fancy car.

Meeting Across the River
This one starts off as a pretty slow ballad. It would have been nice to hear this one right after the balls-out intensity of “Born To Run”. Then they can sequence “She’s The One” after this one. That would flow better. Accompanied by piano and a very distant and reverberant trumpet (conspicuously distant and reverberant… clumsily distant and reverberant…) Bruce’s pal Eddie replaces his quartet of girlfriends. Oh wait, seems that one “Cherry” left him. And he needs a ride, so apparently he doesn’t have his car anymore. Nice job, Bruce. Bruce wants to go through the tunnel “to the other side”. Yes, Bruce, that’s usually what happens when we go through a tunnel. We get to the other side. New Yorkers disdain the so-called “bridge and tunnel” crowd invading the city looking for fun on the weekends, and guess what: Bruce Springsteen is that guy. Stay in Jersey, Bruce. Once again tonight is “the big night” in a Springsteen song. The night it’s all gonna change, the night life is going to become worth living, the night fortunes will smile upon the dissatisfied. That’s his big theme, but these lives never really change, do they? Wanna change life? Electric vehicle charging stations grew by 64% last year. They’ll be everywhere before you know it. Invest in this tech.

This long album closer starts with strings (of course; a prerequisite on the epic album-closer) and a tinkly piano. The 9:33 running time makes it 15 seconds longer than “Free Bird” which closed our Lynyrd Skynyrd experience (previous post). But is it a better song? Well it develops in more dynamic and interesting ways, and the lyrics are more evocative, even if Bruce’s same-old themes are here once again: cars, the streets at night, hope in a darkened heart; dancing, getting laid, getting shot. All in a night’s work. There is, however a sax solo that goes on for more than two minutes. No, Clarence. Just no. On my time, John Coltrane can do that. Charlie Parker can do that. Several others can too. But not the inventor of the hideous 1970s/1980s rock sax sound. I gots other stuff to do. During this saxual assault, the rhythm section have the good sense to change things up a few times in an attempt to keep the song relatively interesting. At the end, the band invest a full half-minute in letting the dense arrangement die away to almost nothing (effective) and then another half-minute doing basically nothing (edit that!). Then Bruce comes in with his efforts at poignant lyrics as the song’s protagonist is carried away by ambulance, and no one cares. But don’t worry, “they wind up wounded, not even dead / Tonight in Jungleland”. Whew!

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
"Born to Run", clearly.

Black Sabbath, coming February 01, 2022

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