Within any decade in which he's been active, singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen has produced an incredibly high percentage of great songs, from scorching rockers to stark acoustic ballads to everything in between. In fact, I could probably put together a third list of superlative tunes without feeling the least bit unjustified. But check out this second set of Springsteen classics that may not always get the attention they deserve.
1. "Two Hearts"
One of Springsteen's most rousing full-tilt rockers, this track really sounds best in a spirited live version, in which the passionate performance of the E Street Band enhances the singer's already throat-rattling vocals. It's a song about romance, but unlike Springsteen's later, more contemplative work on the subject, it's also extremely romantic, idealistic, unrealistic and detached. After all, "two hearts are better than one" and the subsequent rescue of "the little girl crying" are wonderful concepts but don't necessarily take into account the difficulty of actual relationships. But wow, does Springsteen make this vision sound convincing here.
Though written a few years prior to its official release on Springsteen's 1980 epic double album, The River, this haunting track helped cue Springsteen's move toward ever more personal songwriting. In doing so, it ushered one of the biggest superstars of the '70s into a new decade. The song features all the staples of Springsteen's best introspection, and musically it enjoys impressive layers created by the highly capable backing of the E Street Band. The singer had focused on his troubled relationship with his father before, but this track represents the culmination of such familial reflection. One of Springsteen's most beautiful songs.
For The River, Springsteen was clearly poised between his romantic, sweeping and hopeful vision and his turn toward a much more disillusioned, dark and angry worldview. This is a track that resides clearly in the former category, an absolutely uplifting mid-tempo rocker that makes everything seem possible if a person can just get out of the house and into a swirl of bustling humanity "out in the street." It's really not much more than a blue-collar, working-for-the-weekend kind of song, but in Springsteen's hands somehow the tune transcends to become what threatens to be a life-altering experience. I don't know how he does it.
Distinguished also by inspiring a little-known but faithful and brilliant Sean Penn film, 1991's The Indian Runner, this story song slays the listener with its haunting simplicity in the tale of two brothers. The narrator is burdened by being the good, straight-arrow brother who must always tend to the mess made by his wayward sibling. Of course, the intimate, acoustic arrangement of the song is representative of nearly all of Springsteen's 1982 album, Nebraska. But the varying portraits of desperate, often criminally driven characters are what distinguish the record's tracks so fully, particularly the delicate balance of this one.
Springsteen's ability to twist and reinvent simple melodies shines through once again here in this harrowing dream vision. The primal nature of both the dream (fleeing from something dark and sinister on the way through the forest) and the paternal subject matter share a powerful universality that Springsteen skillfully maximizes. Ultimately, it hardly comes as a surprise that this tale's resolution turns out dark and discouraging; the material on Nebraska probably wouldn't have allowed it any other way. This isn't the first or last time Springsteen uses the image of a house in the distance to great dramatic effect.
In fact, here we go with another journey to a house in the distance and shattering dream visions. This track, built perfectly upon one of Springsteen's best electric guitar riffs, has always been one of my favorite songs of all time, ever since I discovered the entire Born in the U.S.A. album in 1985. The account of the protagonist's sprint to the wedding house in the moonlight has always struck me as one of pop music's most tragic song resolutions, accompanied so starkly by soft organ lines. By now, Springsteen's pessimistic vision had become nearly complete, and this song, to me, is its perfect rock and roll representative.
Still, at the same time, Springsteen has never fully abandoned his romantic, mid-'70s epic approach. That attitude returns with a vengeance in this track that so convincingly details the search for inner peace through the constant nature of struggle. But the conflict between fear and hope rages on in warring lines like "the walls of my room are closing in" and "I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover's bed." Springsteen's huge catalogue of music proves that he never gets tired of exploring these kinds of contrasts, and when put to this kind of soaring rock and roll performance, the listener never does either.
While Springsteen may have turned his concerns almost entirely inward for 1987's Tunnel of Love, he certainly did so in an accessibly universal kind of way. Grappling with the reality of romantic relationships rather than their imagined, abstract majesty, the songwriter comes up with a tentative but heartfelt pledge that he will find a way to be worthy of the affection of his beloved. But "the road is dark, and it's a thin, thin line," and the acceptance of that truth doesn't make it any easier to traverse its arduous path. Having shed the E Street Band for the recording of this album, Springsteen goes it alone and creates a distinctive sound.
This tale of Bill Orton, the titular cautious man, could just as easily have been placed on Nebraska if it weren't for the song's particularly personal subject matter. Here, Springsteen grapples with questions about whether a man can be worthy of the love he has, concerns that any man worth his salt should have when considering a long-term relationship. But the internal battle becomes utterly compelling in the hands of this fine storyteller, as Springsteen's description of the unnameable coldness that rises up inside Billy perfectly encapsulates the dread and fear that threatens every relationship but also makes it so utterly real.
10. "Two Faces"
Springsteen continues to wrestle with a puzzling, pervasive duality of personality on this great track, presenting his preoccupation with questioned identity in a very direct way. I remember listening to this entire album and particularly this song at a time in my life when I lingered obsessively on these concerns, and while it ultimately answers no questions, the fact that such a serious examination of romantic confusion exists in pop music remains as heartening as ever. More than anything, the tune announces that even when we get things figured out - as most of us do, more or less - it's only because we accept this central duality.