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Bruce Springsteen | The Essential Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)
A forty-two track, chronological, career-spanning collection (thirty for those not speedy enough to snap up the limited edition) that serves as a fine introduction to thirty years of New Jersey's most famous son.

In his liner notes, Springsteen acknowledges that the term 'essential' is a subjective one and expects some listeners to be disappointed by the absence of personal favourites. He is of course correct in this observation, and such a collection can only serve to frustrate and delight in equal measure.

Disc one opens with a trio of cuts from 'Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ' where it all began back in '73. Blinded by the Light (known to most via the Manfred Mann's Earthband number one cover), For You and Spirit in the Night are all indicative of this period of his work; very wordy and musically busy, with the erratic drumming of original sticksman Vini 'Mad Dog' Lopez and flowing keyboards of David Sancious adding distinctive flavours lost in the superstar years to come. Each track is a gem although, proving Springsteen's point, the exclusion of It's Hard to be A Saint in the City, Growin' Up, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd St and Lost in the Flood makes such choices seem quite arbitrary.

Two tracks are culled from the follow-up, 'The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle' and this time it's tough to argue with the choices of 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) and perennial live favourite Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). (In the interests of quantity over quality, the lengthy likes of Kitty's Back and Incident on 57th St remain to be discovered on the original album).

Hard to bitch and moan about the epic trio selected from the breakthrough 'Born to Run' either - the rousing Thunder Road, the exuberant title track and the epic Jungleland all sounding better than ever here. Even the bass-heavy bluster of 1978's 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' sounds livelier and crisper here than previously, with anthems Badlands, The Promised Land and the moody title track beating out fans favourite Racing in the Street.

From the sprawling double album, 'The River' (1979), however, just two songs are picked, and it's at this point of the collection that the frustration sets in, for the set now begins to resemble the readily available 'Greatest Hits' too closely. Instead of selecting truly 'essential' cuts like Wreck on the Highway, Stolen Car, Independence Day et al, we're once again offered the predictable pairing of The River and Hungry Heart. Whilst the title track is indeed one of Springsteen's finest, Hungry Heart remains little more than an early exercise in writing a radio single. Lyrically weak and throwaway it's role remains little more than a crowd-pleaser.

The classic 'Nebraska' (1982) is represented by its brooding title cut and the single Atlantic City. No complaints. And then we hit the button labelled 'Megastar'. The new, pumped-up, denim and leather world of Bruce Springsteen Inc., circa 1984 and the legendary 'Born in the USA'. Yes this album sold millions, yes it took Bruce to a whole new level of international recognition, fame and fortune. But it's still a dog of an record and the title track one of the very worst songs in his canon. OK, we know the lyric was misunderstood but it's still a wimpy, synth-led no-brainer. Ditto fellow singles Glory Days (the video of the band playing a New Jersey bar pretty much sums up the appeal of this sentimental dirge) and Dancing in the Dark (now more famous for introducing Courtney Cox to the world in its cringe-inducing promo clip), where Bruce once again kow-towed to the demands of writing a hit. His knowing lyric, "this gun's for hire", suggests he was aware of the sell-out if not prepared to fight against it. Of course it's somewhat disingenuous to dismiss this record as it was the one to introduce a worldwide audience to Springsteen, this writer included (I was young, impressionable and it was the '80s), but if truth be told, 'Born in the USA' represented the nadir of The Boss's career until that point. Worse was to come.

1987's 'Tunnel of Love' is perhaps the most underrated album in Springsteen's ouevre and could, if not hampered by the then in vogue synth-heavy production, have been a classic. Just as he'd followed the potential star-making 'River' tour with the lo-fi intimacies of 'Nebraska', the post-BITUSA Bruce was in subdued mode, reflecting on his relationship problems with then wife, Julianne Phillips (married 1986, divorced 1989). Brilliant Disguise chose itself for this set, a 'Nebraska'-esque rumination that boasted one of his best videos too, a single point-of-view monochrome, slowly edging towards an acoustic strumming Bruce, no escaping the personal nature of the song. The title track is great too, albeit hampered by over-production and flamboyant backing vocals.

With just three songs to represent the simultaneous release of 'Human Touch' and 'Lucky Town' (1992), the ill-fated, E-Street Band-less sets that signalled the end of a five-year silence, it would appear the man himself has come to regard these records as not among his best. Two title-tracks and the 'spiritual' Living Proof are probably as much as you need to hear.

The surprise hit single, Streets of Philadelphia, from the soundtrack to Demme's AIDS-flick follows, and is typical early '90s Springsteen, all sombre synths and social commentary (see also American Skin (41 Shots) also featured here and Dead Man Walking from the third, rarities disc). The Ghost of Thom Joad is next, from the 'Nebraska'-wannabe of the same name. One of the rare gems of latter-day Bruce, it's an album far superior to his most recent offering, the post-9/11 patriotic bluster of 'The Rising' from which three selections are made. To close the regular two-disc set are the aforementioned American Skin and Land of Hope and Dreams, two live cuts from the 'Live in New York' set, and suitably overblown and depressing they are.

The third disc is a limited edition selection of rarities and previously unreleased material to entice those of us who own everything on the first two. It's historically of value but frankly low on quality and largely forgettable. From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come) was a hit for Dave Edmunds and Springsteen's original is typical of the rock by numbers he was churning out at the time of 'The River'. The Big Payback  is better, "a little mean rockabilly" as its author describes it, once a 'Nebraska' era b-side. A rousing live rendition of the brief Held Up Without A Gun follows from 1980, then the live Jimmy Cliff cover, Trapped, (originally released on the 'We Are The World' charity album). 'BITUSA' outtake, None But The Brave, is a so-so mid-tempo rocker whilst Missing and the falsetto Lift Me Up are lifted from soundtracks to Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard and John Sayles' Limbo respectively (Sayles and Springsteen have a history, Sayles first using Springsteen's music in his early studio flick, 'Baby It's You' and going on to direct a trio of promo videos in 1984/5). Both are further examples of Bruce's '90s smooth persona and in need of some grit. His take on Viva Las Vegas is horrible as is the Joe Grushecky co-penned Code of Silence, basically  Murder Incorporated rewritten for a doomed relationship. It's left to the acoustic Bruce to redeem this bonus set, with the previously unreleased County Fair (1983) and a wobbly lo-fi take on Countin' On A Miracle recorded during sessions for 'The Rising' reminders of how affecting his music can be.

Great value at around £15 for the triple set, and as good an introduction to Springsteen's music as can be expected from the Columbia corporation, this comes reservedly recommended.

Matt Dornan
November-December 2003