Whenever I give a talk or sign copies of my book, Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books), a reader inevitably asks me, “what’s your favorite Springsteen album?” I always give the same answer—The Rising—and get the same reaction—shock. Undoubtedly, they expect me to name Born to Run, Born in the USA or some other album released before I was born (March 22, 1985). Far too many of Bruce Springsteen’s fans fail to appreciate that the extraordinarily gifted songwriter they claim to admire has continually evolved during the past two decades, and has enhanced his legacy with deeply resonant, provocative, and evocative music. Springsteen’s recent albums draw on familiar trademarks and styles, but also inject fresh sounds and newly diversified lyrical content into his melodically, stylistically, and lyrically rich body of work.
There is no denying the enduring meaning, value, and power of Springsteen’s early work, which contains some of the best songs in rock history. However, too many fans betray the artist who created those songs, along with the values delineated in those songs, when they run for a beer at arenas after hearing the opening chords of a new song and passively demand that Bruce Springsteen, a man whose creativity and artistic boldness produced the music they celebrate, stop being an artist and adopt the static performance personality of an oldies jukebox. None of this would be very important if it had no impact on Springsteen. Disappointingly, the tour for his latest album, Working On a Dream (2009) was much more nostalgia driven than its predecessors, which focused primarily on the newer material from The Rising (2002), Devils & Dust (2005), We Shall Overcome (2006), and Magic (2007).
Therefore, the following list of Springsteen’s best songs from the current decade, compiled solely by your correspondent, seeks to have significant influence on two groups of people. First, Springsteen fans unwilling to move beyond the years of big hair, leg warmers, and the Reagan administration should turn it into a mix CD (I don’t own an I-Pod and therefore don’t know the language. Apparently, I have my own relic tendencies.) and play it regularly with an open mind to invest the same time, thought, and energy in Springsteen’s new music that they did when the old stuff was new. Second, I offer the hope that someone from Mr. Springsteen’s camp will find this list and pass it on to his or her boss—the Boss—when he is getting ready to tour again and drawing up setlists.
For those interested in a much more detailed and thorough analysis of the following songs, I recommend buying my book, which contains passages on all them, with one exception—“The Wrestler”.
Songs are listed in chronological order.
1. “Land of Hope and Dreams”—Already I will be excused of breaking the rules because this song was written in 1999. However, it was not released until 2001, as one of two new songs on the live album, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live in New York City. A spiritual locomotive of a rocker that dramatically and perfectly closed most shows on The Reunion and The Rising tours, this song was written as an inclusive rewrite of the exclusive “This Train is Bound for Glory.” Not only one of the best of the decade, but one of his best ever.
2. “American Skin (41 Shots)”—This epic rock song about race relations, racial profiling, and police brutality was also released on Live in New York City, but it was known before then as a controversial song inspired by the tragic murder of Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers. Diallo was a West African immigrant who police misidentified as a rapist. When he reached for his wallet to identify himself, the police murdered him, firing 41 shots. Musically, the song unnerves the listener with passionate vocals and the entire artillery of the E-Street Band. Lyrically, it represents, better than most songs, Springsteen’s unique ability blend political, psychological, and social themes through individual stories with empathy, complexity, and radical love.
3. “Worlds Apart”—This little known track from The Rising easily belongs in Springsteen’s top ten songs. It is his most experimental song, and is both exciting and exhilarating to hear. Combining the sounds of a hip hop beat, a Pakistani choir, and rock ‘n’ roll guitar solos, “Worlds Apart” tells the vague story of an American soldier who falls in love with a Middle-Eastern woman. However, that story, because of the deeply spiritual content of the lyrics, becomes allegorical for a nation struggling with multiculturalism, immigration, and anti-Arab hostility after the 9/11 attacks.
4. “Mary’s Place”—Also from The Rising, this is the most familiar sounding track on the album. Its gospel-energized, Asbury Park party quality harkens back to Springsteen’s first two records. Close examination of the lyrics reveals that, despite its danceability, it is actually a spiritual meditation on mourning and how one can find the strength and sustenance to “live brokenhearted.”
5. “The Rising”—Depending on its incarnation and the context of its performance, this tribute to sacrifice and meditation on the question of an afterlife, can evoke tears or fist pumping hope. It has worked equally well as a tribute to the lives lost on 9/11, an anti-war statement when coupled with Springsteen’s recent protest song “Last to Die,” and a statement of combative hope at campaign rallies for Barack Obama.
6. “My City of Ruins”—This gospel song was originally written as a prayer for Asbury Park, but became a post-9/11 anthem when used as an album closer for The Rising. Its music is straight out of a sanctified church, but its prayer acknowledges the marriage between the secular and sacred. Springsteen humbly asks divine assistance in building hope, faith, and love, and accepts communal responsibility for communal future, rather than merely looking upward for the perfect solution.
7. “Devils and Dust”—The title track of Devils & Dust is a soul stirring, thought provoking contemporary folk song about a soldier in Iraq. One of any great artist’s most valuable gifts is the capacity to present an experience he hasn’t lived with enough truth and resonance to make it seem as if he has lived it. In Working On a Dream, I compare the lyrics of this song to essays members of Iraq Veterans Against War write in Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense (IVAW). The parallels are stunning. Beyond giving all-too often muted active servicemen and women a voice, this song also presents an examination of the unseen spiritual consequences wars have on the individuals who fight them.
8. “Black Cowboys”—This Devils & Dust ballad tells the story of a young boy growing up in the South Bronx—a neighborhood where bullets fly and families collapse. The boy’s saving grace is his mother’s love until that is taken away from him. A deeply moving trauma narrative about people who have been rendered invisible in American life, this song demonstrates how Springsteen can often write cinematically.
9. “Maria’s Bed”—The Devils & Dust track continues the long Springsteen tradition of sanctifying the flesh and giving sexuality salvific powers. It is also unbearably catchy and fun.
10. “Jesus Was an Only Son”—Another from Devils & Dust. Norman Mailer wrote a fine novel about Jesus the man, called The Gospel According to The Son. “Jesus Was an Only Son” is a moving gospel song about Jesus as a mother’s son. It demands the listener to consider Christ’s political execution as a metaphor for daily injustices that rob lives and separate mothers from children in contemporary life.
11. “American Land”—This song was written for and originally performed by the Sessions Band, and can be found on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Extended Edition) and Live in Dublin: Bruce Springsteen and The Sessions Band. “American Land” is Irish folk meets American rock, and it celebrates the profound influence immigrant groups have had on American culture.
12. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”—Springsteen took the music from the Blind Alfred Reed folk song about the Great Depression and rewrote the lyrics to apply to Hurricane Katrina and the criminally negligent government response it provoked. He recorded it with the Sessions Band and released it on the same albums as “American Land.” It is a powerful protest song that deserves more attention.
13. “I’ll Work For Your Love”—This ebullient and bouncy rocker from Magic sanctifies the flesh and gives sexual love salvific powers just like “Maria’s Bed.” It is also equally catchy and fun.
14. “Long Walk Home”—Magic is a dark record that surveys the wreckage left from the Bush years. Close to its conclusion, the soulful rock tune “Long Walk Home” offers hope in the form forgotten civic virtues—community involvement and activism—and progressively redefined private values—family and patriotism.
15. “The Wrestler”—Written for the movie of the same name, this Golden Globe winning song was officially released on the album Working On a Dream. It is a tearful chronicle of the downtrodden, dispossessed, and dislocated. Although not as strong as “Streets of Philadelphia”—another award winning soundtrack song—it is similarly moving in its unsanitized presentation of suffering and call for empathy.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information see www.davidmasciotra.com