How to Make the Perfect LP From Bruce Springsteen’s Recent Albums
At an age when most artists slow down their recorded output, Bruce Springsteen became more prolific. Between 2005 and 2014, he released six studio albums and an EP, in addition to mounting lengthy world tours to support them. We've curated a perfect album's worth of the best songs from that period below.
We're removing one album from consideration, 2006's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, since it featured his interpretations of traditional folk tunes. However, one original that debuted on that tour, and appeared on the subsequent Live in Dublin, made the cut. The rest of the material comes from Devils & Dust (2005), Magic (2007), Working on a Dream (2009), Wrecking Ball (2012) and High Hopes (2014). None of the four songs on the 2014 EP American Beauty were good enough to make this hypothetically "perfect" album.
This period has been marked by several shifts in Springsteen's writing, another way he has set himself apart from other classic rockers, many of whom have offered attempts to recapture their defining work. Musically, he's expanded his palette, from the sparse, acoustic-driven Devils & Dust to the kitchen-sink production of Working On a Dream. On Wrecking Ball, he and producer Ron Aniello used modern production techniques like loops and samples and, on one occasion on that record, brought hip-hop into the equation.
Lyrically, most of Springsteen's best songs during this time have also been his most explicitly political. While he has frequently written about those who had been left behind at the hands of the powerful, his approach wasn't partisan, in part for fear of abandoning any portion of his audience. But with Magic and Wrecking Ball, he took the gloves off, directly calling out the Bush Administration for their policies on Magic, while much of Wrecking Ball tackled the corporate greed that helped cause the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.
We've arranged our findings in reverse chronological order. Check them all out below.
"The Wall" ('High Hopes,' 2014)
Following in the tradition of "Born in the U.S.A." and "Shut Out the Light," "The Wall" is another song about the after-effects of the Vietnam War. It's set at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and was inspired by Walter Cichon, who fronted a band on the Jersey Shore and became a bit of a mentor to the young Springsteen before Cichon got drafted and was killed in action. Staring at his friend's name on the black stone of the memorial, Springsteen spits out, "I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry," later saying, "Now the man who put you here / He feeds his family in rich dining halls / An apology and forgiveness have no place here at all / At the wall."
"Land of Hope and Dreams" ('Wrecking Ball,' 2012)
Hope on Wrecking Ball comes on its last three songs, the gospel-and-hip-hop-infused "Rocky Ground," "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "We Are Alive." Springsteen premiered "Land of Hope and Dreams" on his 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band, closing out every show with it. But he didn't record a studio version of it until more than a decade later. It's arguably his best song of the post-Tunnel of Love era, giving full vision to the "wide open country in my eyes and these romantic dreams in my head" that he described nearly three decades prior on "No Surrender." And he gets bonus points for referencing the Impressions' "People Get Ready."
"We Are Alive" ('Wrecking Ball,' 2012)
On "We Are Alive," Springsteen visits a cemetery and hears the voices of those who fought and died for a better country, finding the connection between today's struggles and the labor and civil rights movements and those who cross the border in search of a better life. "We are alive," they tell him, "And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart." And as he sings "Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend / It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end," it's hard not to think of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away less than a year before Wrecking Ball came out.
"Death to My Hometown" ('Wrecking Ball,' 2012)
One of the Wrecking Ball tracks that came to life during its tour, the title of "Death to My Hometown" echoes one of Born in the U.S.A.'s many hits. But instead of being sad, he's angry here, comparing the desolate streets to a post-war zone, although no blood was shed, and calls out the government for refusing to hold "The greedy thieves who came around / And ate the flesh of everything they found" accountable for their actions. He treats it as a traditional Irish folk stomp and uses anachronistic words like "robber barons" to show that such practices have been going on since time immemorial.
"Kingdom of Days" ("Working On a Dream,' 2009)
Working On a Dream is the rare Springsteen album that gets off to a slow start. But the second half has a lot to recommend, particularly in the diversity of the music. "Kingdom of Days" is its standout track; a meditation on growing old with the one you love, where time is measured not in days but the addition of wrinkles and gray hairs. It's a subject rarely tackled by a rock artist, and even rarer when it's done this well.
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" ('Magic,' 2007)
The Pet Sounds-esque production on "Girls in their Summer Clothes" is a foreshadowing of what would follow on Working On a Dream, and depictions of an idyllic small-town summer night belies the misery of the main character. He's wallowing in the aftermath of a breakup, finding solace only in the small talk made by the waitress at the diner.
"Long Walk Home" ('Magic,' 2007)
2002's The Rising was mostly about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and its aftermath. His next record with the E Street Band, Magic, focused mostly on the policies enacted by the Bush Administration over the next few years, the toll taken by a lengthy, costly war and the rolling back of civil liberties. "Long Walk Home" is its most powerful statement, where he walks through his hometown and finds it unrecognizable from the place he's known his whole life. "The world that he knew feels totally alien," Springsteen told the New York Times. "I think that’s what’s happened in this country in the past six years.”
"How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" ('Live in Dublin,' 2007)
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Springsteen took "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," a song written in 1929 by Blind Alfred Reed, moved the last verse to the top and penned new lyrics to reflect the Bush Administration's insufficient response to the storm. He debuted the work in New Orleans, at the city's first Jazz and Heritage Festival eight months after Katrina, dedicating it to whom he called "President Bystander." In his autobiography, Springsteen called his Jazz Fest set "not only one of the finest but one of the most meaningful of my work life."
"Long Time Comin'" ('Devils & Dust,' 2005)
Written in the mid-'90s but not recorded until about a decade later, "Long Time Comin'" pushes forward the sins-of-the-father narrative found on previous songs like "Adam Raised a Cain" and "My Father's House." The narrator recalls his father as just "somebody I'd see around" town and he's determined not to make his father's mistakes with his third child on the way. Springsteen also slyly gives his wife the name "Rosie," suggesting that maybe he was able to liberate and confiscate Rosalita after all.
"Devils & Dust" ('Devils & Dust,' 2005)
The title track to his 2005 album, "Devils & Dust" finds Springsteen taking on the voice of a soldier. It's a role he's famously played before, but this time he's in combat, talking to his friend about how much the war has taken out of him. "I got God on my side and I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive kills the things you love / Fear's a powerful thing, baby / It can turn your heart black, you can trust / It'll take your God filled soul and fill it with devils and dust."