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Hidden Gems of Bruce Springsteen

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Bruce Springsteen is one of the most prolific authors in rock history, having written around 250 songs that have been officially released and presumably hundreds more lying in the vaults. So why is it that, in almost any discussion of his work, Born to Run and Born in the USA dominate the debate? Sure, they may be his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, but the Boss has so much more to give.

Even among dedicated fans, while Nebraska yields countless essays of in-depth analysis, certain albums are all but overlooked. Human Touch and Lucky Town, in particular, get treated like nothing short of bastard stepchildren, the black sheep of the Springsteen canon. As well, a number of cuts on the rarities box set, Tracks, succumb to obscurity simply because they never appeared on an album proper.

I won't deny that both Borns are key components of the Springsteen catalog, nor that Nebraska is among his most artistic, challenging works. That doesn't run counter to my claim, however, that many songs on other albums are, unjustifiably, given short shrift.

In an attempt to remedy this oversight, I've examined five of Springsteen's hidden gems — all official releases, no bootlegs or unauthorized recordings — that seldom get their due. In chronological order, they are as follows:

"Racing In The Street" – from 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town: A Springsteen epic, sprawling long, slow and wearing its emotions on its sleeve. Driven primarily by piano and organ, it's otherwise sparsely backed and builds slowly, drawing attention to the lyrics.

And what of the lyrics? At first, it seems to merely be working through the Springsteen playbook, like the "'69' Chevy with a 396" that the narrator races "for the money, got no strings attached;" and the hard workers who "come home from work and wash up/ And go racin' in the street."

Halfway through this archetypal tale of working-man aspiration, though, the song takes a one-eighty turn as its narrator begins to reminisce about his girlfriend back home. "She cries herself to sleep at night," he laments. "She stares off alone into the night/ With the eyes of one who hates for just being born."

It's a poignant, nuanced portrait that concludes with the titular couple heading to the sea "to wash these sins" off their hands. And the chorus that at first sounded downtrodden now conveys optimism: "Summer's here and the time is right/ For goin' racin' in the street." Perhaps there is hope down this highway after all.

"Dollhouse" – recorded 1979, from 1998's Tracks: One of Springsteen's most urgent tracks, it conveys a sense of nervousness present in very little of his work. The vocals are edgy, the instrumentation taut, and the lyrics direct as the narrator addresses the woman he's in love with.

Relatively fast-paced, it's an immediately catchy track, but what's most impressive is Springsteen's vocal. He approaches shouting at several points, but it doesn't sound out of place in the song's context: This man's relationship is on the line.

The metaphor of the dollhouse, representing how his girl wants to feel in control — "I'm just another doll in your dollhouse to you" — works not only for the image it conjures of a childlike authority over possessions, but also because dollhouses are traditionally perceived as fragile structures.

Ultimately, this relationship is on the rocks and close to sinking. Things have to change or a break-up is imminent. Intense music and cautionary lyrics rarely work as well as they do here. That this song wasn't deemed worthy of inclusion on a regular album — instead laying dormant for two decades — is criminal.

"Downbound Train" – from 1984's Born in the USA: How I can justify including a track from a work I already cited as critically and commercially acclaimed? Because removed from the context of the album — wherein the overall bombast overshadows its modest tempo, slight melody and chugging rhythm — the song gains new power.

Underscoring the working-man ethic of its lyrics, the repetitive progression in the music reflects the drudgery of the narrator's day-to-day existence. Vague, train-like effects echo throughout, adding an eerie, disquieting feel to the whole piece.

Yet it's with the dark-themed lyrics that the song truly shines. The image of a "downbound train" is used as a metaphor for the protagonist's life: He "got laid off down at the lumberyard" just as his "love went bad" and "times got hard." He tells of her leaving him on a train, the haunting vision of the "Central Line" reverberating throughout the song as well as the narrator's thoughts.

Circumstances don't improve as he hallucinates and dreams of his lost lover, his lost job; neither are coming back. The narrator, in the end, resigns himself to a fate on that proverbial "downbound train." It's an immensely powerful song.

"Leap of Faith" – from 1991's Lucky Town: As mentioned previously, Springsteen's double-act of Human Touch and Lucky Town received quite the critical drubbing — recording with musicians other than the E Street Band didn't help — but therein lay a few gems and this one shines the most. An all-out rocker, it celebrates the joy of sex, life and religion. And while other artists have crossed the profane with the sacred, rarely has it been done with this much style.

Lines such as "Your legs were heaven, your breasts were the altar/ Your body was the holy land" may, at first, make conservative listeners balk, yet beyond the explicit references is an ode to the joy and passion that both love and lust can bring. For many, the wonder of connecting with another person — be that physically or emotionally — can deliver bliss as sublime as connecting with God or having a religious epiphany. Faith ultimately connects them all and is that which can reap emotional rewards. It's undoubtedly one of Springsteen's finest lyrics.

"You'll Be Comin' Down" – from 2007's Magic: For me, this is not just one of Springsteen's greatest overlooked songs, but one of his best songs, period. A masterful melding of melody and lyric, it achieves what, to my mind, is one of the ultimate feats any songwriter can accomplish: writing something that can be read and understood in two completely different ways, set to catchy rock-come-R&B music.

A venomous lyric, it can be understood on levels both personal and political. The chorus of "What goes around, it comes around/ And you'll be coming down" is exquisite in its simplicity, delivering a hefty emotional impact. Yet it's in the verses that magic lurks. Surrealistic imagery that hints of indignation — "Your cinnamon sky's gone candy-apple green/ The crushed metal of your little flying machine" — contrasts with scathing criticism — "You'll be fine long as your pretty face holds out / Then it's gonna get pretty cold out." Either the narrator is angry toward a lover who jilted him or simply at President Bush, "But pretty soon it turns out/ That you'll be coming down now, baby."

As heated as the lyrics get, though, the melody remains lush and lavish, reminiscent of "Born to Run" and "No Surrender," albeit slightly more subdued. On an album full of them, it's the most magical moment on Magic, yet fan recognition eludes it. Springsteen and the E Street Band only played it once on the tour to promote the album.

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About Wesley Mead

  • JC Mosquito

    Interesting choice of Downbound Train – most critics consider it one of his weakest attempts – almost a throwaway piece. I myself always thought it was decent enough.

  • Me and Wayne

    I also like Downbound Train a lot. A song that seems like it connects the Nebraska and Born in the USA albums.

    You’ll be Comin’ Down took a while to sneak up on me, but now it’s a favorite. I often think of it as “that color song” because of all the different colors mentioned in the verses (I don’t know what “daisy grey-blue” is exactly, but I like how it sounds). I also now sometimes think of Sarah Palin when listening to it. Her head was spinning in diamonds and clouds alright, and she sure had her hopes on high.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/wesley_mead Wesley Mead

    Thanks for the comments. Good to know I’m not the only fan of “Downbound Train”!

    I love all the colours used in “You’ll Be Comin’ Down”. It evokes some great imagery.

  • Tsafrir

    nice and interesting choices. I must comment that Racing in the streets and to some extent Leap offace@ are obviously very much cherished by many fans.

    I would have probably added Lost in the flood and candy’s room to such list (and probably many more :)), but i guess thats totally personal.

    great reading. ty!

  • acoolromeo

    “…I rushed through the yard, I burst through the front door
    My head pounding hard, up the stairs I climbed
    The room was dark, our bed was empty
    Then I heard that long whistle whine
    And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried..”

    That is a killer lyric and a very powerful image.
    It is a screen play in 46 words. Not many artists can do that.

    Thanks for a great article.

  • Me and Wayne

    Hidden gems from Devils & Dust: “Maria’s Bed” and “Black Cowboys”.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/wesley_mead Wesley Mead

    Thanks for all of the additional comments, very kind!

    Devils & Dust: Definitely “Maria’s Bed”, though I’m not big on “Black Cowboys”.

  • http://www.fridaybrucefix.com fridaybrucefix

    Great topic and great post, Wesley.

    No disagreements with your choices. I’d add ‘Two Faces’ off Tunnel of Love, ‘I Wish I Were Blind’ off Human Touch, and ‘Jesus Was An Only Son’ off Devils & Dust. So many great songs to choose from.