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'Hits' belies Bruce Springsteen's fading star


It would be hard to name another rock legend whose star rose as dramatically and whose luster has faded as abruptly as Bruce Springsteen's has. But after spending time with Springsteen's newly released "Greatest Hits" (Columbia 67060, arriving in stores today), it seems just as hard to justify that fall from favor.

By rights, this new album ought to be heralded as a major music event. Not only does it collect some of the greatest work of a major rock star, but its four "new" tracks -- a previously unreleased tune from the "Born in the U.S.A." session, plus three newly recorded numbers with the reunited E Street Band -- ought to have the rock world abuzz with anticipation. Instead, the album is being treated as just another piece of old-star product.

That Springsteen is seen as being past his prime is hard to dispute. Once lionized as "rock 'n' roll's future," Springsteen now comes across like the celebrity kin of the small-town washouts he sang about in "Glory Days."

Despite the fact that last year's "Streets of Philadelphia" was one of the biggest hits of his career, Springsteen's music no longer carries much clout. His place as rock's premier songwriter has since been assumed by Tom Petty, while his role as its leading populist has since been claimed by Pearl Jam. Even his status as America's Official Jersey Guy has somehow been usurped by Jon Bon Jovi.

It's tempting to blame the unrelent- ing gloom of his later work for this, but as "Greatest Hits" makes plain, this isn't simply a case of social realism turning a good-times Charlie into bad-breaks balladeer. To begin with, Springsteen's darkest songs are often among his catchiest. Judged from its lyric sheet, "The River" is downbeat to the point of seeming suicidal, yet there's something so resonant and resolute about the song's hymn-like refrain that it's hard to listen without feeling uplifted; likewise, neither its muttered melody nor its down-at-heels narrative quite keep "Streets of Philadelphia" from seeming triumphant, somehow.

But the strange truth is that his work has actually gotten cheerier over time. Compared to the anger and longing of "Born to Run," "Badlands" and "Born in the U.S.A.," songs like "Human Touch" and "Better Days" sound almost like affirmation anthems. Even Springsteen's liner notes admit that the latter song reflects a time when he was "feeling like a happy guy."

So why isn't that happiness more contagious?

First, it's worth noting that Springsteen has never really understood the power of melody. One of the more telling details in his liner notes concerns the song "Hungry Heart," which he explains was originally written for the Ramones, and would have been given away had Springsteen's manager not intervened. It's a funny story, but it also goes a long way toward explaining how Springsteen overlooked some of his own best writing -- "Fire" and "Because the Night" were big hits for other singers, remember, so don't appear here -- and thus ceded some of his pop prominence to cannier tunesmiths like Petty.

That only explains part of his problem, though; the rest has to do with the way the times have changed around Springsteen. Look back at those early rave reviews and what you'll see the critics lauding is Springsteen's passionate intensity -- a faith in rock and roll that burned white-hot beneath the music. That's what kept the melodrama of "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road" from turning into bathos, and what made the working-class struggle of "The River" and "My Hometown" seem so compelling.

But these are cooler times, and in this age of managed depression and self-referential irony, Springsteen's emotional heat seems corny and out of place. That anyone would believe so passionately in the music evokes little more than a sneer from the hepcats who have come to dominate current critical thinking; as they see it, Kurt Cobain proved that nobody's life gets saved by rock and roll anymore.

Maybe so. But if you're not moved by the hot-rod poesy of "Born to Run," the self-deprecating fun of "Glory Days," or the murmured romance of the new "Secret Garden," that's not Springsteen's loss -- it's yours. So if you'd rather continue being cool and ignore these songs, don't worry.

They'll still be here when you decide to warm up.


To hear excerpts from "Greatest Hits," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Code: 6163.

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