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The Church Of Bruce

Bruce Springsteen's recent albums and shows prove that maybe you just have to be there

Alex Fine

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/27/2009

Bruce Springsteen's new album, Working on a Dream (Columbia), is the weakest he's ever released--weaker even than the twin disappointments of 1992, Human Touch and Lucky Town. And yet his show at Washington's Verizon Center last week was an utter triumph--and not, as you might think, just because of the older songs sprinkled throughout the set list. Even his recent compositions sparkled on stage.

How can that be? How can the same songs that were so underwhelming on studio albums such as Working on a Dream, Magic, and The Rising be so effective in a live setting? The answer, one must conclude, is that these recent numbers are not designed to work on a bedroom stereo, a car CD player, or an iPod. They are constructed for the grand theater of a Springsteen concert, where the simple melodies and obvious sentiments can be shared by the singer and his audience in mammoth sing-alongs not unlike the interaction of an African-American church. Just as non-descript hymns can become thrilling when a minister and his congregation reach a cathartic climax, so did Springsteen's generic songs in his give-and-take with a basketball arena full of fans.

Near the end of his May 18 Washington show, he tied three of his songs from this decade together in a medley: "Radio Nowhere," "Lonesome Day," and "The Rising." In their studio versions, these songs all suffer from the weaknesses of Springsteen's recent writing: repetitive, sing-song melodies and lyrics that favor vague generalities over specific description. But when he stood on a ramp jutting forward from the stage into the crowd, his Telecaster hanging against his black T-shirt and vest, his muscular arms thrust skyward, a forest of arms from the floor angled toward him, these same tunes were riveting.

Each one had a catch phrase--"Is there anybody alive out there?" "It's alright," and "Come on up for the rising"--that was profound not for what was actually said, but for the space that was created for the singer and his audience to pour their feelings into. Perhaps it was because these phrases were so vague, so sing-songy, that it was easy for thousands of people to belt out the phrases with such gusto. In the process, these phrases took on meanings of consolation and revival they never had on the original records.

Not once all night did Springsteen ask or even gesture for sing-alongs, but the crowd spontaneously sang out old songs and new songs; they sang choruses; they sang verses; they sang until they were as tired after 165 minutes as the sweat-drenched musicians. It was the damnedest thing you ever saw.

Does this mean that his latest albums with the E Street Band--2002's The Rising, 2007's Magic, and this year's Working on a Dream--are better than we thought? Good lord, no. Absent the high drama of Springsteen meeting his fans face-to-face, a song such as "Lonesome Day" wilts; coming through ear buds, its refrain of "It's alright" sounds like a gratuitous platitude. By contrast, a song like "Kitty's Back," the second encore number at the Verizon Center, is equally effective on an iPod. Its lyrics are so visual, its chord changes so arresting, its narrative of a circle of friends losing and then regaining its charismatic center so compelling that its climactic cry of "It's alright" needs no crowd to help it along.

It's almost as if Springsteen has made the mistake of reading his own press clippings too closely. So many critics--and I'm as guilty as anyone--have pointed out the grand themes lying beneath his stories of his blue-collar New Jersey pals that he has started writing about the themes instead of the pals. Big mistake.

Older songs such as "Out in the Street" and "The Promised Land," both highlights of last week's show, describe marginalized characters blowing off steam on a neon-lit street corner after a hard work week or racing across a desert highway as they leave their hometown behind. Yeah, you could say they're "working on a dream," but he never has to say that because the songs are so evocative--both musically and lyrically. On the title track of his new disc, though, he has to state the theme baldly because the images and music can't do it for him. An older song such as "Johnny 99," another highlight, didn't have to trumpet the outlaw status of its protagonist, because the narrative was so convincing. "Outlaw Pete," the overwrought opening track of the new album, has to exaggerate because the main character never seems real.

This doesn't mean that the new album is completely without value. "The Wrestler," the theme song from the recent Mickey Rourke movie, is the strongest track on the record and was even stronger in its rootsier stage arrangement. Nor does this mean that Springsteen is no longer capable of making listenable albums. The 2005 studio project Devils and Dust was very good and the 2007 concert recording Live in Dublin was terrific. It's not clear that he recognizes this, for last week he did no songs from the former and only one ("American Land") from the latter. He has recruited four members of the Seeger Sessions Band that recorded Live in Dublin--violinist Soozie Tyrell, keyboardist Charlie Giordano, and singers Curtis King Jr. and Cindy Mizelle--to join the eight members of the E Street Band on the current tour.

All this is a welcome reminder that making records and putting on live shows are two very different endeavors requiring very different skills, and one can be good at one, but not the other. Springsteen once excelled at both, and now he excels at one. His best shows are rituals as absorbing as the best church service, the best live theater.

A new ritual has sprung up on this tour. During "Raise Your Hand," Springsteen collects from the crowd posters requesting specific songs. He then sorts through the pile, picks one out, holds it up to the band and then holds it up to the audience. At the Verizon Center, this led to impromptu versions of "Out in the Street" (as a duet with the 9-year-old girl who made the poster), an instrumental version of "Hava Nagila," a long version of "Blinded by the Light," and a romp through Mitch Ryder's "Little Latin Lupe Lu." It was proof that there's still enough spontaneity in the church service to keep things loose.

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