In the grand scheme of Bruce Springsteen’s career, 1992 would be a leading candidate for the single worst year to become a Springsteen fan. On his Wikipedia page, it’s the year that begins the “artistic and commercial ups and downs” section (1992-2001) that comes between “commercial and popular phenomenon” (1984-1991) and “return to success” (2002-2007).
It was the year Springsteen released two albums simultaneously, his first after dissolving the E Street Band. Human Touch and Lucky Town were the third and fourth compact discs I ever bought (after the Darkman and Rocketeer soundtracks), and I loved them. Granted, the albums were about domestic bliss and I was just a teenager, but domestic bliss sounded a lot better than being lonely and angst-ridden in my St. Paul bedroom. Plus, I had Springsteen’s entire catalog to sustain me: I’d just discovered and purchased every one of his albums, available on then-uncool vinyl for just a buck a piece at the local used-record warehouse.
I spent the next several years figuring shit out in my life, and Springsteen was there for me with a restless series of releases: the drum loop of “Philadelphia,” the largely acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad, the “MTV Plugged” concert with his new band, the Tracks box set. Springsteen later called the 90s his “lost years,” but that worked for me: they were my lost years too.
Then, about a decade ago, both Bruce and I got up on our feet. I figured out that I needed to stop waiting for a girlfriend and a social life to just magically happen to me, and Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band for The Rising (2002), an album widely hailed as the first great artistic response to 9/11. (Was there ever a second? The jury seems to still be out on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)
Bruce has been riding the clangor train since then, releasing “classic” sounding albums like Magic (2007), Working on a Dream (2009), and the new Wrecking Ball as well as the Rising postscript Devils & Dust (2005) and the folkfest We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) along with a handful of live sets. Bruce is back! He’s touring! Except for having to say goodbye to Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, all is right with the world, amirite?
No. I want the 90s Bruce back: the one who wasn’t content to be Bruce Springsteen™, the one who was taking care of his own issues instead of trying to bring the country together. It’s not that his 2000s albums have all been sweetness and light, it’s that they suffer from what one critic reviewing The Seeger Sessions called a “self-satisfied stomp.”
It’s great to be Bruce Springsteen, and his new albums make it sound like it’s great to be Bruce Springsteen, and I’m left with the feeling my aunt described having when Springsteen took the stage on the 1987 Tunnel of Love tour and handed a single rose to a woman in the front row. What the hell is this?
I thought things couldn’t get worse after Working on a Dream, but I barely made it through Wrecking Ball once: Springsteen adding his We Shall Overcome folksinger schtick to the turgid E Street2k slop makes the album just kind of embarrassing for all of us.
Or maybe my issue with Springsteen is just a matter of bad timing. In the last few years, as Bruce’s “return to success” has reached its prolific peak, I’ve had some experiences that have caused me to lose some of my faith in the surging, hopeful sentiment that’s Springsteeen’s past and present trademark. I had my “Thunder Road” come-on-let’s-get-out-of-here-just-you-and-me-we’ll-take-this-world-on-and-beat-it-baby-we-were-born-to-run relationship, and it ended in a car wreck (not a literal one, but almost) despite my most arduous efforts.
I blamed my ex, I blamed myself, and I blamed Bruce. Aren’t things supposed to work out, if we just have faith? Aren’t those Badlands supposed to start treating us good? Isn’t Janey supposed to not lose heart if you just tell her not to again and again and again and again and again? It felt like my musical hero had lied to me. And that was just a breakup—here’s Springsteen telling 9/11 widows that things are going to get better, that we can stick together and rise up? Really, Bruce?
I don’t want a dark and dreary Springsteen, but I do miss the “lost years” when Springsteen faced the darkness on the edge of town alone. It wasn’t, as he acknowledges, his best work—but it wasn’t his Best Work, either. We still have a Bruce Springsteen who sings about taking chances, but I miss the one who actually did.