HIS HUGE, MOURNFUL, WOUNDED bear of a voice is so effective and emotive when placed against fresh backdrops that it remains a pity Springsteen doesn’t musically branch out more often. As this three-CD set (there’s also a two-CD version, excluding the rarities disc) tries to fairly represent each of his albums, there’s too much communal air-punching, too little gentle introspection. Too much c’mon everybody, not enough leave me alone everybody. The anthems surge past anonymously, intimate as juggernauts. But when he gets quiet, gets home after crowded nights and faces solitary dawns, he’s an extraordinary artist with a spooky, magical gift:the ghost of Orbison, the patron saint of the wilfully lonely.
A career-spanning retrospective, this obviously contains many absolutely storming songs, while begging you to question the omissions. It’d’ve been braver to offer one of the extended mood-pieces from the second album, or the thrilling, atypical “Candy’s Room”, or the underrated “Secret Garden”. The acoustic albums are given short shrift; allocations roughly tying in with commercial success.
But we’re quibbling against a tidal wave. There’s a preposterous wealth of greatness here. The early songs babble and spit with verbose poetry (“For You”), then hunch and stalk (“4th Of July”), then explode into the crystallised crescendo that was “Born To Run”. “Jungleland” is more exhilaratingly imaginative than most rock messiahs’ entire output. We move through Springsteen’s noble attempts to keep it real while suddenly famous?Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River, Nebraska (and the sublime “Atlantic City”)?before the downswing of the Born In The USA era. On “Tunnel Of Love” the visionary within still breathes (and can document the demise of love-as-hope), but it’s patchy from there. “Streets Of Philadelphia” is a gem, again freeing the great bear from his musical cage. For “The Rising” (to which opus critics were unfathomably generous), he’s back behind safety bars.
The third disc of rarities and lives proves how exciting a soul man he can be when off the four-by-four leash. Fans already owning the greatest hits stuff six times will covet it. Previously unreleased are a nifty “None But The Brave” (a Born In The USA outtake); home recordings of “County Fair” and “Big Payback” (shortly after the Nebraska sessions); and the rocky “From Small Things”. From films, there are “Lift Me Up” (from Limbo), “Dead Man Walking” and the beautiful “Missing” (from The Crossing Guard). There’s the acoustic “Countin’ On A Miracle” (as played at the end of every show on the Rising tour), a jocular “Viva Las Vegas”, and a live “Held Up Without A Gun” from 1980, which burns, hellbent on exhaustion or ascension. Still the standout (ever since The River tour) is an astoundingly in-the-moment live version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped”. Rarely has anyone made another’s song so their own. It emerges bruised, Bruce-d, not so much a torch ballad as a forest fire, a heart (and larynx) ablaze. The wordy babbling beatnik became The Boss then became understandably cautious, but when he loses himself and lets rip, to this day, thunder and lightning back off warily. Looking again at the track listing, this is a crazily great thing.