It's the end of Bruce Springsteen as we know him
What do the biggest solo icons in music history have in common?
Elvis, Prince, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen all have a guaranteed place in the pop pantheon. They've also had penchants for odd behavior. Religious conversions, zoological fascinations, bizarre health regiments and sexual perversions color their biographies.
All of them, that is, except the Boss.
About the most bizarre thing you can accuse Springsteen of doing is sticking his crotch into the camera at the Super Bowl XLIII halftime show. And, let's be honest, most of us liked that. Sure, a New Jersey man recently claimed that his soon-to-be ex-wife had an affair with Springsteen, but even if it’s true the allegation would only serve as further proof that Bruce is, at heart, one of those regular guys that he sings about.
The well-grounded, nonindicted, commercially viable Springsteen is clearly sane and maddeningly well-adjusted. And the older he gets, the more down to earth he seems to become. Plastic surgery? Negative. Weird pets? Not really; he likes horses. Strange causes? Not so much. He's become active in politics over the last two presidential elections, and shows no signs of letting up on the liberal fundraisers, benefit concerts and cocktail parties. Snooze.
At this point, Springsteen has less in common with the aforementioned pop icons and more in common with boring rock stars like Tom Petty. In fact, Petty is exactly the kind of guy Springsteen threatens to turn into, someone whose back catalog is still respected but who threatens to become a subject of one of those "Dead or Alive?" trivia games before much longer. (Go ahead and add John Mellencamp and Bob Seger to that list as well.)
While Springsteen's normalness may be depressing to a country that prefers celebrity nut jobs, what's even worse is how his late-career sanity seems to have negatively impacted his musical output.
His last two albums practically pandered to lite-FM. The listless nature of 2007's Magic is mirrored on 2009's Working On a Dream, which feels startlingly close to the focus-group-minded music being made by John Mayer and Sheryl Crow.
Songs like "This Life," "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the title track are full of small yet over-produced riffs and gooey sentiment. "Queen of the Supermarket" is the worst of the bunch, likely the most anesthetized, cornball song Springsteen has ever recorded. There's even a video that syncs the song to stock footage from a grocery store advertising reel. Check out these sweet lyrics:
"With my shopping cart I move through the heart/Of a sea of fools so blissfully unaware/That they're in the presence of something wonderful and rare/The way she moves behind the counter/Beneath her white apron her secret remains hers/As she bags the groceries her eyes so bored."
It wasn't always this way.
Once upon a time Springsteen was hyperactive and pissed off, ready to make out with a girl and then kick her boyfriend's ass. And so on the occasion of his Atlanta show, let's look back at happier times — before he was so damn happy. Below are five essential Bruce albums, works where you can feel his passion, his inspiration and his eccentricity. Put them on before you go out to see him, if only to remind yourself how weird he could have been.
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle: Full of drunken-sounding, howl-at-the-moon non-sequiturs, Bruce's second album showcases his abilities to spin bizarre yarns about young lust. With '70s excess aplenty, it contains helpings of funk, arena rock and the Dylan-like verboseness that colored his early work.
Darkness on the Edge of Town: On his fourth album, Bruce sounds at turns festive, angry, hopeful and tragic, and these emotions are often captured in a single groan, hum or grunt. The pessimism of the album's title is balanced throughout by descriptions of its characters' dreams and major chord explosions.
Born in the U.S.A.: Boiled down to its essence, Springsteen's most famous work is a rockabilly-flavored romp dedicated to the plight of working people. Its purpose: to help said working people get laid.
Nebraska: Bleak, sparse and haunted, it's an unplugged folk album that avoids clichés and melodrama and is reminiscent of the best American blues albums produced in the first decades of the 20th century. It's the kind of depressing that — to quote our friend Mellencamp from Indiana — hurts so good.
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.: As we're told on "Spirit in the Night," "Wild Billy was a crazy cat and he shook some dust out of his coonskin cap/He said, 'Trust some of this it'll show you where you're at, or at least it'll help you really feel it.'" Wild Billy, where are you now, and how soon can you be at Bruce Springsteen's house?