Bruce Springsteen Box Set Gives Earliest Work New Immediacy — And Respect

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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For those of us lucky enough to have watched his trajectory from “Bruce Who?” to “Br-u-u-u-c-e!,” it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that more than one generation knows Bruce Springsteen mainly as some classic-rock dude their parents like. It’s even harder to consider that a star revered by millions as the rock ‘n’ roll voice of Everyman also has suffered rejection by potential fans merely because popularity always produces a backlash.

Shakey Graves admits he did the parental write-off before discovering the error of his ways (and recording a killer cover of “I’m on Fire”). The producers of Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A., confessed to joining the haters’ camp as kids before coming around.

But if you were musically aware in 1973 and happened upon a free-form rock station in, say, Pittsburgh, and you suddenly heard a Springsteen song, your hand quickly reached for that pre-digital tuning knob to sharpen that sound. You had to hear more, and sought out this so-called new Dylan’s debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park. And once the defiant poetry of “Growin’ Up,” the raw, breathless urgency of “For You,” the nonsensical exuberance of “Blinded By the Light” or the jazz-funked lonely angels of “Spirit in the Night” penetrated your consciousness, they stayed.

Even those who didn’t discover Bruce until Born to Run, his make-it-or-break-it third album, or Born in the U.S.A., his mid-‘80s catapult to mega-stardom—or didn’t “get” him until far more recently—have a relationship with this artist that doesn’t compare with any other. (Many explain why in the unique documentary Springsteen & I.) The new box set, Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 1, 1973-1984,containing Bob Ludwig’s loving remasters of Springsteen’s first seven albums,provides an opportunity to revisit his early work with marvelous clarity. Listening in sequence makes for an incredible journey, and stunningly reinforces the true enormity of Springsteen’s achievements.

How many artists could craft seven albums in a row that earned no less than 4.5-star ratings from fans and critics? (Eight, actually, if you count 1987’s Tunnel of Love.) Allmusic.com shows five-star critic ratings for six of them; only Darkness on the Edge of Town got 4.5. Site users gave that one five, along with Born to Run. They averaged 4.5 for the rest. Those ratings become even more astounding considering the lawsuit-induced three-year break between Born to Run and Darkness, which would have killed a lesser artist’s career.

Allmusic.com critics gave only one other album, 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 4.5 stars. Fans gave it and 2002’s The Rising the same. It’s little wonder Bruce’s concert setlists still lean heavily on songs from his original rising, which generations now bond over precisely because they still carry the potency they had when he first recorded them. For any songwriter, what better achievement is there than knowing your songs have not only withstood the test of time, but continue to resonate anew?

(For more proof of why he’s so beloved, tune to PBS Friday, Dec. 5 at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central for A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, from 2013’s MusicCares Person of the Year gala.)

Greetings from Asbury Park (released Jan. 5, 1973)

Listening to Greetings now, the shining brilliance of Springsteen’s early promise is, if anything, even more evident. After years of hearing concert-polished versions of these tracks, the wonderfully rough-edged originals inspire anew. Here, he was still figuring out where to breathe while cramming together a million-zillion words we’d never heard juxtaposed in quite those ways before.

In breadth alone, this album astonishes. The plaintive beauty of “Mary Queen of Arkansas” is simply arresting, but next to “Lost in the Flood” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”—all from one scrawny 22-year-old Jersey Shore street rat (he would be 23 before Greetings’ release)—it’s just one more diamond. Even remastered, it’s obvious this album didn’t have the recording values subsequent ones do, but its initial lack of commercial success is still confounding.

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