The Boss has been downsized. You can’t tell it by the four-CD box set Tracks and the coffee-table-size lyrics and photograph book Songs, but Bruce Springsteen has been rendered expendable. Given the ascendancy of digitized music—techno, hiphop, Natalie Imbruglia—you could even say he’s been replaced in the pop economy by machines. Tracks and Songs are high-ticket items in the way antiques or hand-carved furniture are: arcane relics from a romanticized past, when human craft was valued.
Being relegated to Christmas-gifts-for-yuppies status won’t do much for Springsteen’s populist image. That’s too bad, because at its admittedly inconsistent best, Tracks confirms his longtime critical rep. From the faded heroine of “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” to the desperate, laid-off provider in the remarkable “Roulette,” to Vietnam vet after Vietnam vet, Springsteen has sung more intelligently and emotionally about economic issues—about the class structure that divides this country as surely as Du Bois’s and Wu-Tang’s color line—than any popular artist since Woody Guthrie. That may be precisely his problem: in these bull-market days of information and lei sure, who wants to hear about factory workers? When we can watch ghetto superstars flash ice daily on MTV, aren’t lyrics about failed American dreams as corny as the guitars
and horn sections that surround them? Isn’t class déclassé?
Springsteen is at least partially to blame for his own unplanned obsolescence. After purposefully veering away from big studio production with the street-punk masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town, he zagged back on The River and began writing for radio. At the time, he
balanced throw aways like “Hungry Heart” with devastated tales of redemption lost, like “Stolen Car.” But eventually, dumbing down his craft to reach some common ear undermined his own vision. By setting one of his most scathingly critical lyrics to a ridiculously punchy chorus, the only popular artist who actively contradicted Reagan’s sunny-morning-in-America routine became part and parcel of it. With “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen became a symbol of megastardom, of ’80s success excess, the rock concert turned Super Bowl. On Tracks he plays the song like he should have released it: as a haunting, unforgiving ballad.
Less acknowledged by Springsteen and his supporters is the way he betrayed himself by overromanticizing his working-class heroes, reducing them to mythic clichés. On the 1983 version of the previously unreleased song “Brothers Under the Bridges,” Springsteen sings about boys sneaking off to watch men parade cars on the edge of town. Springsteen had already plumbed this theme as a metaphor for trapped escapism on “Racing in the Streets”; here, it comes across as an indulgence in dangerous nostalgia. Disc 3 of Tracks—the ’80s songs—is full of cuts like this: at best, they’re comic send-ups (“TV Movie”); at worst, they’re genre exercises, mere pantomimes at meaning.
There are several distinct albums to be wrought out of Tracks: one full of rockers tracing back to his bar-band roots, one gathering the country-inspired stories he began spinning on Nebraska, one that’s nothing but love songs. Mine would focus on the period from Born To Run through Nebraska, when Springsteen excelled at cinematic epics and heart-drenched ballads. It would show an artist, a person, struggling to rescue dreams from reality—to wrestle control of both. Born during the consumer promise of the Eisenhower era, then raised during the onset of the collapse of northeastern industrialism, the racial riots of the ’60s, and the demoralization of the Vietnam War, in a house where these were things happening to his friends, his neighbors, and his family, not strangers in the news, Springsteen has always sympathized with lost souls, with people who counted on the American dream be cause it worked in the ’50s, and be cause it was all they had.
The box set closes with a second version of “Brothers Under the Bridge.” This one is from 1995, when Springsteen released the dark, distinctly un-radiogenic The Ghost of Tom Joad, his best album in 13 years. This “Brothers” is about homeless vets hiding in the hills of California; like Tom Joad, it shows Springsteen abandoning escapism for empathy, applying the lessons of his past to con temporary lives far from his own: illegal immigrants, Vietnamese fishermen in Texas, hoboes. They’re not the denim-clad Everyman Springsteen has too frequently catered to, but they know where to pick up his tracks.