Defending Bruce Springsteen’s Most (Unfairly) Maligned Albums

09.22.16 3 years ago 4 Comments

Bruce Springsteen’s biggest hits are sewn into our lives. From “Dancing In The Dark” and “Glory Days” to “I’m On Fire,” “Streets Of Philadelphia,” and “My City Of Ruins,” Springsteen has captured a mixture of breathlessness, bittersweet yearning, and small town angst that reflects on the last 40 years with a voice that is as strong as it is vulnerable and carefree as it is concerned. Critics adore the work, fans still regard the man as a God, and he shows no sign of stopping, but mixed in with his successes are works that have failed to cause a spark for whatever reason.

Are these albums bad? Certainly not. In fact, if you’ve only concerned yourself with wearing out your copies of Born To Run and Nebraska, you may find a few treasures within these works that you’ve either forgotten about or never knew existed. So in honor of his birthday tomorrow, and in light of his forthcoming memoir and accompanying album, we’ve decided to look back, too. That’s why we decided to rank Springsteen’s most (unfairly) maligned albums and suggest a few tracks worthy of exploration.

4. High Hopes

The problem with High Hopes is that it’s sort of a compilation that ended up being released and treated as a proper album. This album consists of songs from throughout Springsteen’s career that had been scrapped from previous sessions, along with a handful of new ones. As a result, the album can’t help but feel a bit slapped together. That said, it’s not like there’s nothing to enjoy here; his cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” is incredibly powerful, and it’s one of the best vocal performances of Springsteen’s career. There’s also the stunning “American Skin (41 Shots),” which had been written 15 years earlier, but had never appeared on a studio album. It was written after the killing of Amadou Diallo by police in 1999, but Springsteen began performing it again after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. The song found a new relevance and was given extra power by Tom Morello, who appears on several tracks on the album.

Elsewhere, “Frankie Fell In Love” is a fun, catchy song that would’ve probably fit on The River and “Hunter Of Invisible Game” is a subtle, powerful ballad. Really, what holds this album back is a sense of inconsistency. The good songs here are great, but there’s a lot of tracks I end up skipping when I throw this album on. “Harry’s Place,” and “Down In The Hole” just never go anywhere. And even if “This Is Your Sword” has an undeniable melody, it’s brought down by some corny lyrics that make The Boss seem like a cheesy self-help guru.

This album is far from perfect, and it’s hard not to be reminded of the fact that it’s kind of a studio album in name only. Still, there’s enough strong material that it’s worth listening to at least once, even if you’re only a casual Springsteen fan.

3. Human Touch

This was one of two albums that Springsteen released on March 31, 1992, the other being Lucky Town. Neither of these albums were lauded at the time, but Human Touch is generally considered a bottom rung album for Springsteen, but in its defense, he’s made so much great work that even good work can look less impressive in the shadow of truly great things. That distinction doesn’t mean this is a terrible album.

The title track is probably the best-known song off the record, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a Springsteen anthem of the highest order, and the only thing holding it back is the fact that the E Street Band aren’t playing on it. Elsewhere, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” is a rant about modern technology that doesn’t make any particularly original points, but is a fun and cranky sing-a-long.

What holds this album back is that there are too many songs that kind of just exist, limply. Even if you’re a die-hard Springsteen fan, you probably don’t spend that much time thinking about tracks like “Man’s Job” or “All Or Nothing At All.” Human Touch is a perfectly fine album that might count as a career high point for those unburdened by a wealth of iconic releases. It reflects a time when he seemed to be not particularly inspired, but it still has a handful of tracks that should be in your personal “Best Of” playlist. And isn’t that a tribute to the man? That he can still make you connect with a song even when he doesn’t seem connected?

2. Working On A Dream

This one is a textbook case of how something can be simultaneously overrated and underrated. Upon its release, Rolling Stone gave Working On A Dream a glowing five-star review, putting it on par with some of The Boss’ best work. Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: This is not a five-star album. That being said, it’s probably a tad better than its public reputation (which is in conflict with the Rolling Stone review).

The negativity toward Working On A Dream tends to come from a handful of songs. First, there’s the 8-minute opener “Outlaw Pete,” a tale of an old west legend that doesn’t really go anywhere, and inexplicably borrows the hook from Kiss’ “I Was Made For You.” Suffice it to say, there was a rather odd choice to start an album with, and it’s certainly not one of Springsteen’s best.

Then, there’s “Queen Of The Supermarket,” which is often considered the worst Springsteen song ever, or at least in the running. Frankly, the hate for this one seems overblown. It’s a tad silly, but that’s about it. The only real sin in this song is Springsteen randomly sneaking in an f-bomb at a place where it doesn’t really make sense. While it’s certainly lacking the rawness of “Jungleland,” it’s hardly the disgrace that detractors make it out to be.

There’s a lot of songs that feel like they would be remembered as classics had they been on a better album. “My Lucky Day” is one of Springsteen’s best late-period tracks, while the title track benefits from some brilliant production. “Surprise, Surprise” is often ragged on for its simplistic chorus, but it also has an incredible melody, and it’s nearly impossible to get out of your head. Finally, there’s “The Wrestler,” a track recorded for the film of the same name. This is technically a bonus track, but it’s still an incredible way to end the album. Working On A Dream is an inconsistent record, but its best tracks make it more than worth your time.

1. Lucky Town

It’s strange, Human Touch probably received more promotion than its companion album (when Springsteen appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1992, he performed two songs from it), but Lucky Town was clearly the stronger record, and one that has kind of gotten lost to history; everyone grumbles about the problems that plague its companion, while forgetting that this is actually a really strong record.

The title track is a woefully underrated Springsteen gem that feels like it should be an all-time classic. “Better Days” was the hit from this one, and while it was somewhat overshadowed by “Human Touch,” it was still a solid choice for a first single. Elsewhere, “Living Proof” is a stunning, powerful anthem that could have been on Darkness On the Edge Of Town. Springsteen seemed far more inspired on this album that he did on Human Touch, and the songwriting is much stronger.

It feels like if this album had been released independently, it would have gotten more attention, and would likely have a better reputation. There’s only one thing slowing this album down: the lack of the E Street Band. Sometimes, the music can’t help but seem a little bland, like Springsteen’s powerful vocals deserve better accompaniment. Still, this is a very strong record, and out of all the maligned albums in the Springsteen catalog, it’s easily the least deserving of its reputation.

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