Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rock Bottom: Bruce Springsteen

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

Fans and critics both agree that Human Touch is Bruce Springsteen's worst album, they just can't agree on the reason why.

William Ruhlmann of the All Music Guide believes it's an record full of "minor genre material" that doesn't "aspire to greatness." So, basically, he thinks that the Boss' lack of ambition sinks the record. Springsteen fan L. Petit, who reviewed the album on Amazon.com stays along those lines, calling the songwriting "lazy" and "empty."

Fellow reviewers Zach Everson and Tduff both lay the blame on the production, that old favorite. The former says there are "too many bells and whistles thrown in and not enough focus on the vocals and guitars." Still others, like Snobophone, Brian Rubendall, and MILAU blame the absence of the E Street Band for the record's lack of punch.

So which is it? And is Human Touch really Springsteen's worst? Let's look at each possible reasaon.

First, does ambition make a record better? Or, conversely, does it redeem a bad record? Is this really a valid way to judge music? "I absolutely hated listening to this record, but at least the artist tried hard." I don't think that works, so I dismiss Ruhlmann's lack of ambition logic.

Blaming production or the lack of the E Street Band assumes that the material is strong, just not the delivery. Little Steven, Max Weinberg, and Clarance Cleamons are all talented, but they can't improve a melody or lyric sheet. Besides, Bruce had already proven he could be artistically successful without all of the E Streeters in tow, as he did on Nebraska and Tunnel of Love. Good production, likewise, can't mask bad songwriting. Anyway, except for Real Man, the production on Human Touch isn't all that dated. So I'm not so sure of those excuses.

I probably fall most in line with Petit. The songs here are just not strong. In fact, make a list of Springsteen's worst tendencies and you'll find an example of each on this record.

The Boss's fallback vocal style is to scream instead of sing. It can work if the melody is strong enough (as on Glory Days, for example), but when the songs are of iffy pedigree, watch out. It makes him sound weirdly like Billy Joel doing Shameless (which is a fine song, but I don't want to hear that rasp for any extended period of time). The worst offenders on Human Touch are Gloria's Eyes, Roll of the Dice, and Real Man.

Springsteen is often hailed for his lyrics, but in my opinion he walks a very thin tightrope between brilliant and laughable. At his laziest, the Boss will rely on cliched phrases (as he does on All or Nothin' At All), or rhyming dictionary couplets (like on this gem from The Long Goodbye: "Waitin' on rain, hangin' on for love / words of forgiveness from some god above.") On that same note, do you have a dad or grandfather who is full of "wisdom" that is actually just strings of worn-out cliches? If you don't, get this record and you can learn things like "with every wish there comes a curse" (With Every Wish).

Another hit or miss proposition is Springsteen's earnestness. He's not a guy who puts much humor or levity in his music. His earnestness has an appeal, but can become tiresome, as it does on the love songs Cross My Heart and I Wish I Were Blind.

Bruce also has a knack for slightly uncomfortable imagery, especially when he refers to sex. The Born to Run line "strap your legs 'cross my engines" comes immediately to mind. Well, get ready for a little bit of skin crawling when you listen to Man's Job ("Lovin' you's a man's job, baby") or Real Man ("Well you can beat on your chest / Any monkey can / You got me feelin' like a real man").

Finally, Springsteen has a weird fascination with being "folksy", and I don't mean that in a musical sense, even though he has dabbled in that genre multiple times. No, what I mean is that Springsteen is from New Jersey, but sometimes pretends like he grew up in 1930's Oklahoma. On Every Wish he claims to have "courted" a girl named Doreen, on Real Man he takes his "baby to a picture show." In Pony Boy, he implores the titular figure to "giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-away."

But Human Touch isn't just a collection of bad habits. There are some shining moments. Unfortunately, they all come at the beginning of an overlong record. The title track is a classic Springsteen tune; maybe that's why it sounds completely out of place with the rest of the album. The second song, Soul Driver features some nice harmonies from Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame). I like it even if I have no idea what a soul driver is. The final standout is 57 Channels (and Nothin' On), a minimalist commentary on the soullessness of modern decadence (or something like that). By no means does it belong on any Springsteen best of, but it does earn points for being something unique in an album of sameness.

Human Touch does have its admirers. Amazon.com reviewer Jordan Silversmith says "This is a sublime record. Very sublime." Not sure about the necessity of the "very" there, but okay. And though it's the worse of the two albums Springsteen released simultaneously in '92, Human Touch does have better cover than its companion album, Lucky Town. Plus, Randy Jackson (of American Idol) played bass on the record! So it's not all bad.

Some fans even point out that despite its generic nature, Human Touch is at least very listenable. That's true, and that's definitely not the case with the other two albums that vied for the title of Springsteen's worst, the laborious The Ghost of Tom Joad and the plodding Devils + Dust.

Even so, Human Touch has an almost complete lack of the substance and style. For some reason I think of 1980's The River. That album contained a lot of workmanlike tunes and not a lot of standouts, but there was still an inherent power and weight to even the lesser songs. Whatever story or meaning one finds in most of the songs on Human Touch has to be self-invented, and that's why it's the Boss's Rock Bottom.

Author's Note: This is album review #211.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

210. Bruce Springsteen: Working on a Dream (2009)

Has anybody else noticed the similar career paths Bruce Springsteen and Prince Rogers Nelson are on? Of course, the Boss emerged a bit earlier than Prince, but both ascended to the highest heights of acclaim in the '80s, spent most of the '90s on self-indulgent meandering, and rediscovered themselves in recent years. They've even both rocked the Super Bowl halftime show.

Bruce's comeback started with 2002's The Rising, an album that was thrilling, if a little full on filler. He took another couple of sidesteps with Devils + Dust and The Seeger Sessions, but came back strong in 2007 with Magic. That album found Bruce and the E Street Band fully embracing their past, writing and performing new songs that sounded like old ones. That continues on Working on a Dream, to a point.

One major difference between Prince and Bruce is that no one has ever been shy about admitting a Prince influence (Justin Timberlake alone owes his whole career to Prince and Michael Jackson), but that hasn't been the case with Bruce until recently. Then critics started noticing that indie darlings like Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady were showing more than a little Bruce influence in their wall-of-sound epics. Hipsters blanched, but it was true.

I can't help but wonder if this development has lit a little fire under Bruce. One need look no further than the opening song, Outlaw Pete for evidence. The song has garnered extreme reactions from critics and fans. I can see both sides. At eight minutes and one second long, it feels a bit indulgent, and the western tall tale lyrics are seriously silly (unless you believe an infant is capable of robbing a bank). But the song also manages to cast a spell, not only with Pete's tale, but musically as well. It builds, ebbs and flows, and actually justifies all 8 of its minutes. Either way you take it, it's the most ambitious thing Springsteen has done in a long while. And I have to point out that if Arcade Fire released this song, critics would be falling all over themselves to praise it.

Queen of the Supermarket is likely to create similar debate. A Brian Wilson-ish ode to a grocery store employee seems almost like a joke at first, especially when Bruce brings in a checkout scanner for rhythm. As I listen, I wonder what Bruce's point is. Is the song about seeing someone attractive and anonymous and developing a harmless crush as you wonder about their life, as you project perfection on them? Is it a glorification of consumerism? Is it a reminder to treasure the seemingly mundane aspects of life? The simple fact that the song elicits these questions is enough to make it my favorite on the album.

The rest of the record is populated with some of the most joyous songs Springsteen has ever written. Lucky Day is organ-driven pop love song featuring a trademark Clarence Clemons sax solo (there really aren't enough of them on the album). The hopeful Working on a Dream has that big Phil Spector wall of sound that Bruce put first forth 34 years ago on Born to Run. It's all "la-la-la" background vocals, whistling, and glockenspiel. This Life is Beach Boy-flavored like Queen of the Supermarket, but also recalls the rugged pop of the Magnetic Fields. The folky Tomorrow Never Knows lopes along. Kingdom of Days is perhaps the most unabashed love song Bruce has ever written: "And I count the blessings that you're mine for always / We laugh beneath and count the wrinkles and the grays."

But for such a swiftly-paced album, Working on a Dream contains many moods. Good Eye is a harmonica-driven swampy blues tune that sounds like little more than a fun exercise for the band to play live. Life Itself has a creepy, melancholy sound and mysterious lyrics that contrast sharply with the hopeful majority. Sample lines: "Why do the things that we treasure most slip away in time / Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind."

The album ends on a similar downbeat. The Last Carnival is an elegy for Dan Federici, the E Street organist who died last August. Simple and effective, it compares life on the road to a traveling carnival, and ends with some nice heavenly harmonies. The album's final song, The Wrestler, evokes the spirit of the film for which it was written without being too literal about it. That makes Bruce three for three on soundtrack songs (Streets of Philadelphia and Secret Garden being the first two).

While not perfect, Working on a Dream is the best-sounding, most consistently enjoyable album Springsteen has made since, I don't know, Tunnel of Love? At this point in his career the Boss could simply settle for being a source of inspiration. Instead, he's obviously still inspired.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Queen of the Supermarket

Monday, February 02, 2009

209. Roy Orbison: Mystery Girl (1989)

It was 20 years ago today. The Berlin Wall fell, Milli Vanilli won the Best New Artist Grammy, and The Arsenio Hall Show debuted.

Over the next few months, I'll be looking back at 5 seminal (well, depending on your definition of the word seminal) albums from 1989.
Next...

Recently there was an article on Yahoo Music about musicians jumping the shark. Tellingly, none of the jump the shark moments on the list were actually musical. Instead there were things like: "Elton John gets a toupee" and "Bret Michaels looks for his Rock of Love." It was a flawed idea anyway: Musicians can hit Rock Bottom, as we've seen, but they never fully jump the shark. There's always room for a comeback.

(Now songs are a different story. Songs can and do jump the shark, usually because of overexposure or inappropriate use in media, or both. Thanks to Toyota, I could go the rest of my life without hearing Saved By Zero again.)

Roy Orbison had his own comeback in 1989, but it was actually a continuation of a comeback. The previous year he'd gotten together with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan as The Traveling Wilburys, and they struck a populist chord. Orbison went immediately to work on the tracks that would make up Mystery Girl, but he died in late 1988, before the album could be released.

As with the Wilburys project, Orbison surrounded himself with high caliber talent on Mystery Girl, including most of the Heartbreakers, and all but one of his Wilbury brothers.

Album opener You Got It is a mini-Wilburys reunion. Petty co-wrote the song with Orbison and producer Lynne, and one can't really argue with that team. They created an instant classic that deserves a place on any Orbison greatest hits list. It doesn't hurt that the song has a retro feel to it.

In fact, most of the album has that feel, from the '70s R & B horns of The Only One to the jangly California Blue (a song Chris Isaak would kill for) to the '60s pop of Windsurfer. But In the Real World wins the award as the most authentic sounding Orbison tune. A thematic follow-up to In Dreams, it finds Roy in fine operatic voice. Heartbreaker Mike Campbell produced.

The album's most intriguing song is not retro-sounding all. She's a Mystery To Me was written by Bono and the Edge and sounds like it. Though it works surprisingly well as an Orbison vehicle, one can't help but wonder two things: 1) What would a U2 version sound like, and 2) Does this girl who's such a mystery also move in mysterious ways?

Elvis Costello's The Comedians sounds tailor-made for Orbison, but one might not have guessed that from the original version that appeared on Elvis' 1985 album Goodbye Cruel World. That first iteration found the brief, elliptical lyrics (about hangers-on) overwhelmed by the musical accompaniment. The Mystery Girl version is almost a completely different song. Elvis wrote new verses, making it into a break-up tune, and the musical backing became a minimalist march. It's a dramatic improvement.

Not everything is so great. George Harrison shows up for A Love So Beautiful, a shmaltzy sort of ballad that goes too heavy on the strings. The T-Bone Burnett-produced rave-up (All I Can Do Is) Dream You goes the opposite direction, sounding out of place with the rest of the album.

But those are only small missteps. Overall, Mystery Girl was a comeback and a swan song all in one, and proof positive that you can never count a good musician out.

Grade: B
Fave Song: You Got It