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Initially and for some time, Springsteen's sound has had no equal, but in recent years no shortage of bands have been striving to recreate his style of big music, from the Avett Brothers and the Hold Steady to Gaslight Anthem and the Killers.
This is not surprising, seeing as Springsteen comes from a long line of fellow heartland travellers: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Pete Seeger (who Springsteen covered with We Shall Overcome). Ever since his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park (a frazzled lyrical nod to Dylan and Van Morrison) Springsteen has continually proved himself amongst the best to chronicle America in song.
Originally tagged by the media as "the new Dylan", Springsteen was able to surpass this rather dismissive tag and found his own signature style on Born to Run. His music avoided the traditional style of the protest song, but focused on strong narratives about everyman, small-town America. Through his observations on the rituals of everyday life, Springsteen was able to express a greater universal truth. Musically, he came under the influence of Spector's Wall of Sound, combined with a unique natural ability as a songwriter. He was able to encapsulate the nervous optimism of the beautiful loser in search of the American dream.
With Born to Run, Springsteen exploded commercially and later had a top-ten hit with Hungry Heart (from the River). In 1982 he showed his willingness to follow his instincts (rather than commercial goals) when he released Nebraska, an unforgiving album which cast its eye on a dying America. For its theme, Springsteen used the 1958 Charles Starkweather killing spree as a bleak analogy for a country in decay. Creating a gothic picture of an America in its death throes, he related the depressing and intimate conversations of people living without hope. When I listen to Nebraska I hear the same nervous desperation that lurks in the music of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Smog.
Amazingly, Springsteen moved from the downbeat to the biggest-selling pop album of his career, Born in the USA. The subversive title track tells the story of a Vietnam veteran, and saw Springsteen hiding radical ideas behind big pop slogans. Ironically, the song would later be used for Reagan's presidential campaign and become the soundtrack to various patriotic manoeuvres.
After the enormous success of Born in the USA, Springsteen went solo and focused on more intimate songwriting about love, marriage, commitment and betrayal. Albums included the brilliant Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town, although those last two releases saw him fall from critical favour.
With the 1995 release of The Ghost of Tom Joad, however, Springsteen returned to familiar ground using John Steinbeck's literary characters as a further analogy of a broken American dream. In 2002 he reunited with his E Street Band for The Rising, taking inspiration from the aftermath of 9/11. At this point Springsteen returned as "the American hero you could trust" during this time of tragedy. With a cultural resurgence afforded by The Rising, he continued his disillusioned portraits of America under the Bush regime with Devils and Dust, and Magic. Both illustrate the classic Springsteen concept of expressing big protest statements within the stories of small-town America.
His new album is eerily predictive of a positive change in America and was released shortly after the election of Barack Obama. Working on a Dream is one of the most hopeful Springsteen albums since Born to Run and barely contains its happiness through its power pop blasts. It proves, once again, that each Springsteen release is a snapshot of the secret history of an ever-changing America.
Reproduced by Kind Permission of Alan McGee