Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective, Part II: The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle (1973)

"We're gonna play some pool, skip some school, act real cool
Stay out all night, it's gonna feel alright
So Rosie come out tonight

Baby come out tonight

Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor

Closets are for hangers, winners use the door

So use it Rosie, that's what it's there for!"

Someone once told me that The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle is pretty much the perfect inaugaral summer record. We all know the type: the album you blast in your car on the first gorgeous spring day to herald the arrival of Earth's most glorious season. This year, after I finally escaped from my RA job and from my sophomore year of college, I played The Wild, The Innocent on the drive home, and despite the fact that the weather pretty much sucked and that it didn't really look a bit like summer, this record made me feel like it was. It's a record about escape, about freedom and liberation, and it stands as one of Springsteen's very best: a classic album full of massive, cinematic suite-like songs, a writing style he'd master here (and to a certain extent on Born to Run) and never revisit in his career after that, shifting towards more mainstream rock and pop music. The result is that The Wild, The Innocent is probably the most singularly unique album in Springsteen's entire catalog.

It's amazing how different this album is from Greetings, as it dropped just over 8 months after that album did. It's clear from the first jazzy notes of "The E-Street Shuffle" that this is going to be one hell of a summer party record. The E-Street band is nearly at full force here: they've officially taken the name, and use it in the opening track to create a theme song for themselves, a mission statement of sorts. The brassy opening gives way to a jangly guitar riff and what sounds like a synthesizer, before finally exploding into one of the most spontaneous songs Springsteen has ever written. The lines flow one after the other, introducing us to the kind of characters who will occupy the songs that follow, until finally, the song dissolves into one big jam session, a showcase for the myriad of talented musicians at work here. This song is the album's shortest, clocking in at just over four-and-a-half minutes. That the shortest track here would sit among the longer songs on Greetings or Born to Run is indicative of what kind of a record this will be: this isn't Springsteen writing typical pop or rock and roll songs. This is the Boss writing huge, overblown and cinematic songs, often operatic in scope; this is the Boss writing like he'd never write again.

"The E-Street Shuffle" flows perfectly into the atmospheric "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)", which still stands as one of the most gorgeous love songs Springsteen has ever written, and one of my favorites on the record. It sounds like a perfect summer night, spinning a tale of falling in love underneath the fireworks on the boardwalks of New Jersey. Organ and accordion player Danny Federici, a longtime E-Street band member who passed away in April of 2008, gives what is probably his signature performance on the song, adding greatly to it's nighttime atmosphere. The jazzy "Kitty's Back" is as close as Bruce and co. get to sounding like Greetings. It's a towering track that acts almost like this record's "Spirit in the Night". The song thrives on record, but this version still pales in comparison to the one from the famous Hammersmith Odeon London show from 1975 (which was released as a live album and DVD for the 30th anniversary of Born to Run), where the song runs for 17 minutes and gives each band member an extensive feature.

"Wild Billy's Circus Story" is probably the album's most forgotten cut, underrated simply by it's lack of importance in Springsteen's catalog and it's absence in most live sets. Springsteen's lyrics, about the magnificent but strange people you might find at a circus, float over a gorgeous acoustic guitar accompaniment, occasionally augmented by flourishes from Federici's accordion, Springsteen's own harmonica, or by bassist Garry Tallent with a marching tuba line. The song, along with "Sandy" is a welcome subdued moment amongst a record of big rockers and bombastic arrangements, and functions strikingly well as the side one closer. And although it's a song I almost never think of apart from this record, it's probably one of my favorite moments here.

Side one is nothing in comparison to side two however, which might be the most perfect side of any Springsteen record (though both sides of Born to Run could make a compelling case). Side two is comprised of three songs that amount to 25 minutes of music. All three are among Springsteen's longest, but also among his best. "Incident on 57th Street", particularly, is notable among Springsteen's discography. I've heard from several people who've said it sits among their favorite Springsteen songs: one blogger, who ranked every single Springsteen song in his own personal order a few years back, went as far as to place "Incident" at number three, trailing behind only a pair of legendary Born to Run cuts: the title track and "Jungleland." It's also a song many die hard fans would include in their ultimate set lists, and yet the song very rarely makes an appearance on Springsteen tours, even with his habit of constantly rotating his setlist selections. In my opinion, the song is terrific, but probably my least favorite of the side two masterworks. It's a true epic: a West Side Story-esque storytelling piece that hints at the perfection Springsteen would reach on his next record with "Jungleland." It's marked by swirling piano lines, a stellar bass solo by Tallent and another of Federici's most notable appearances in the Springsteen oeuvre.

"Incident" flows right into the massive, anthemic rock song that is "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," a song about forbidden love that stands as one of the most furiously energetic and uninhibited I've ever heard: it's loud, it's bold, and it's endearingly powerful. It's no wonder that "Rosalita" was, for a long time, the go-to Springsteen set closer: there aren't many songs that could close a show out better than this one. Springsteen spits off classic lyric after classic lyric, sounding more like a rockstar than he ever had before, and perhaps more that he has since. And the band never misses a beat, building a wall of sound behind him that stands up next to their best performances on record. "I'm coming to liberate you, to confiscate you, I want to be your man!" Springsteen sings to the title character, telling her to forget about her disapproving parents and just escape with him, for the night, maybe even forever. And the thing is, it's impossible to imagine her saying no. "New York City Serenade" feels almost like an encore following that scorching rocker, but it's certainly not an afterthought. The song stretches on for just shy of ten minutes, and not a second of that is wasted. It begins with pianist David Sancious strumming the insides of his instrument before launching into a piano intro that begins as baroque and fades into jazz. He's joined by an evocative acoustic guitar line and then, at last, nearly two and a half minutes in, Bruce's voice. Despite the fact that Bruce's lyrics don't make a lick of sense as a linear story (the song was composed from different pieces of earlier songs ), "New York City Serenade" is a masterpiece: equal parts "Jungleland" and "Rhapsody in Blue." Springsteen paints broad portraits of New York City and of several different characters, using such stunning lyrical imagery that it doesn't matter that a story never emerges. The song is constantly shifting, joined at points by yearning strings and the Big Man's sax, only to replaced moments later by handclaps. The acoustic guitar and the gorgeous piano remain constant throughout, and David Sancious is definitely the MVP here, which is rather appropriate, since he'd leave the band after this record (he'd soon be replaced by longtime member, Roy "the Professor" Bittan). When "New York City Serenade" finally fades away, I often have no greater desire than to just hit repeat.

The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle is Springsteen's most unique record. It's incredibly unpolished and spontaneous sounding, full the kind of songs that nobody, let alone Springsteen, are still writing nowadays. Today, it stands as one of my favorites in the Springsteen discography, but back when I was first getting into his stuff, The Wild, The Innocent... took the better part of a year to truly sink in. And yet, despite it's lack of immediate accessibility (or perhaps because of it), many Springsteen die-hards would call it their favorite record of his without a moment's hesitation. Indeed, fans grapple for these songs in concert like almost nothing else he's ever written, and despite the fact that only "Rosalita" has been a common live staple in recent years, an appearance of "Incident" or of "New York City Serenade" almost immediately grants a show legendary status, sending fans all over the world to the Springsteen bootleg exchange to get their hands on a copy of it. In that way, I'd imagine the Madison Square Garden show from 2009, where he played the entire record in full, was quite the event: not only did they get both "Incident" and "Serenade" in the same concert, they got the whole record, and they heard those songs in the context they were meant to be heard. I would have done quite a lot to be at that show.

This record comes strikingly close to perfection, and yet, despite the great songs and all the terrific talent on display, the record, like Greetings, didn't do very well. These two records are often lumped together in the eyes of lesser Springsteen fans: they were released less than a year apart and made with pretty much the same set of musicians, with the same producers behind the boards. And yet, I've never thought that The Wild, The Innocent... suffered the same pitfalls of it's predecessor: there are no songs that don't belong here, the flow is perfect, and the production, which so hampered many of the songs on Greetings, just seems to suit the songs here. And all of that ignored, the band had already gone through a massive evolution of sound in the 8 months between the two records. Gone is the Dylan-worship that covered many songs on Greetings, gone is any sign of hesitation: Springsteen and company sound completely confident here, like they're making the music they want to make and like they're doing it better than anyone else ever could. And I'm pretty sure they were right, even if the general public wouldn't realize it for a couple more years.

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