Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Promise Fulfilled

If I were forced to choose just two Bruce Springsteen albums for a desert island stay (boxed sets don’t count), I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). When I was a teenager, these albums captured my imagination in a way that few albums ever have. They still do.  More than that, they represent a key transition in Springsteen’s vision as a songwriter.  First there’s Born to Run – the colorful characters, the driving anthems and the lush wall-of-sound production. Then there’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – powerful and raw, a head-on collision between hope and desperation. But never surrender. As the street poets give way to factory workers and the romantic dreams of escape turn to a darker reality, Springsteen finds heroism in the everyday struggle. The appeal of The Promise, the two-disc collection of songs recorded in 1977 and released last month by Sony, is that it captures the moment of transition. It’s a glimpse into the making of an artist.

Professional athletes peak at the age of 27 or 28. For artists, there’s no such rule and no such limit. Still, for most of us, turning 30 represents something pivotal. As adults, we’re just finding our footing, still coming to understand the world, our community and our place within them. Our dreams and ideals aren’t necessarily abandoned, but they’re recalibrated and redefined in light of maturity and new understanding. These discoveries are expressed in the work of writers and artists. At the age of 28, Bruce Springsteen had recorded three albums, including the acclaimed Born to Run and had appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was emerging as something of a rock star but was a long way from mega-star or celebrity status. He had also been involved in a nasty legal dispute with his former manager over the rights to his songs. And when he looked around, he saw a post-Watergate nation living in doubt and he saw working class people from the towns he knew struggling to make sense of their lives.

Like other serious fans, I was already familiar with some of the tracks on The Promise through the magic of bootlegging (“Rendezvous”, “Outside Looking In”, “The Promise”) and I was pretty sure the album was going to be something special. Still, I wondered if this was the sort of release that would appeal only to hardcore fans. Were the unreleased songs left off previous albums for good reason? Was The Promise just a desperate ploy on the part of a dying music industry to pry cash from fans on the strength of one of the label’s few profitable artists?

If it was a ploy, it was one of the better ones that Sony has come up with. The Promise offers alternate takes of songs that appear on Darkness (“Racing in the Street”), favorites better known from versions by other artists (“Because the Night”, “Fire”, “Talk to Me”) and a terrific collection of rockers, 60s-style pop and soul, and heart-felt ballads which span the mood and the musical distance between Born to Run and Darkness. There’s a wealth of tasty material here. The boxed set also includes DVDs of some riveting live performances with the E-Street Band and the special which aired on HBO on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the sessions, the loose-limbed Springsteen is alternately light-hearted and intensely serious. But there’s no mistaking the drive, the restlessness and the creative energy.

The two-disc set can be seen as a sort of “lost” Springsteen album from, arguably, his most creative period. It’s not merely a collection of rejected outtakes and not-quite-good-enough songs. It more than holds its own as a cohesive work and it also offers fascinating insight into Springsteen’s creative process. The songs don’t simply come to him in fevered dreams or moments of inspiration. Instead, we see Springsteen the tinkerer, a craftsman at work. He tries different melodies with different lyrics, he mixes and matches verses, attempting different concoctions until he arrives at something that fits with the mood, the characters and theme of the story he wants to tell.

“Candy’s Boy” features most of the lyrics that would eventually make up “Candy’s Room” but a different melody and slower tempo give the song an entirely different feel. It’s a bittersweet lament rather than a desperate rocker. “Spanish Eyes” has a lyric that would appear on Born in the USA seven years later (“Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone”). “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight) uses the melody and a few lines from “Factory” but it’s a completely different song. It also has the line that would emerge years later on the underrated B-Side, Johnny Bye-Bye: “The man on the radio says Elvis Presley died.” We’re reminded that a good writer is also a judicious self-editor. It’s as if Springsteen (perhaps with Jon Landau whispering in his ear) said “I LOVE this lyric but it doesn’t work for the story I’m trying to tell right here.” So he files it away for another day.

This fruitful recording session ultimately produced Darkness on the Edge of Town, a landmark album for Springsteen. It was the first album in which he explored in depth the subject that mattered most to him throughout his career – the American Dream. And as good as The Promise is, you don’t hear any song on it that causes you to say “He should have put THAT on Darkness." For one thing, Darkness isn’t wanting for much of anything. But most of the songs on The Promise are too sentimental by comparison. The one possible exception might be the song, “The Promise,” which was as unsentimental a song as Springsteen had ever written. Just two years after he was “pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road”, Springsteen recorded these lyrics:

      All my life I fought this fight
      The fight that no man can ever win
      Every day it just gets harder to live
      This dream I'm believing in
      Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
      Thunder Road there's something dying down on the highway tonight

He's a long way from Born to Run.  In the Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity, there’s a great passage in which the 30-something narrator muses:

In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.

Nick Hornby’s narrator probably hadn’t heard “The Promise.” The choices are NOT simple. The escapes don’t always work.  Springsteen’s character drives his Challenger down Route 9 through dead ends, chasing ghosts. Dreams can wither and die. And life goes on. The struggle continues. The beauty of Darkness is the way Springsteen tries to capture that struggle without flinching and without ever succumbing to resignation. When Pete Townshend first heard Darkness on the Edge of Town he summed it up this way: “When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album, that's not 'fun', that's fucking triumph, man.”

What The Promise offers is that same triumph but with a bit more fun.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wilco's 50 Best Songs

I don't know if there has been a better American rock band over the past two decades. Back in my old neighborhood, in the 1990s, I found myself completely absorbed by the Alt-Country genre or, if you prefer, Cow Punk.  I listened to Steve Earle, Social Distortion, the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo, Lucinda Williams and the Old 97s. I read No Depression magazine. I discovered the seminal alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo just as they were dissolving. But rather than take sides in the divorce between Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, I rejoiced in the fact that there would be two new bands to embrace, Son Volt and Wilco.

Son Volt was stronger out of the gate but I had no complaints. I loved both debuts, Son Volt's Trace and Wilco's A.M.. And on a summer night in New York City in 1995, I crowded into Tramps on West 21st Street and saw Wilco play their raucous, aching heartland rock 'n' roll well past 1:00 am. I loved it. But it was the following year, when Wilco released  the ambitious double-CD, Being There, it became clear that this band was taking their game to another level. From the sonic chaos that opens the album to the soulful ballads to the revved-up rockers, listening to Wilco was like taking a journey across America and the landscape of your own heart. And the journey continued with the lush Brian Wilson inspired pop of Summerteeth, the post 9/11 discordant beauty of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the noise rock of A Ghost is Born and onward.

My list  draws only lightly from the newer albums. Not necessarily because they're weaker albums but because Wilco's best songs take on deeper meaning over time, as you listen and live with them for a while. Wilco is a band with very diverse musical styles and different elements will appeal to different fans. Ask any another Wilco fan to pick their own top 50 songs--  half might be different songs entirely and you might see a completely different top 10. I love that about Wilco.

Anyway, here are mine:

50.   Casino Queen (A.M.)

Raunchy rocker from the Wilco’s debut album. Needs more cowbell.

49.  One By One (Mermaid Avenue)

Jeff Tweedy gives voice to some of Woody Guthrie’s most heartbreaking lyrics.

48.  Someone to Lose (Schmilco)

The standout track on Wilco’s latest album, a solid, understated effort that gets better with repeated listens. 

47.   Pot Kettle Black (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

A catchy rhythmic number with the late Jay Bennett on steel guitar.  

46.   Red Eyed and Blue (Being There)

Few writers or singers capture a world-weary and lonesome feel the way that Jeff Tweedy can. 

45.  She’s a Jar (Summerteeth)

Wilco’s lush baroque pop and abstract lyricism are combined on this almost unbearably sad song. 

44.  You Are My Face (Sky Blue Sky)

Layers of musical and emotional depth in Neels Cline’s guitar work.

 I Got You (at the End of the Century) (Being There)

Wilco’s second album, Being There, contains elements of everything that Wilco was or would become. “I Got You” is pure power pop but check out the bluegrass version used by Judd Apatow for This is 40

42.  Theologians (A Ghost is Born)

I still have no frickin’ idea what a cherry ghost is. Does it matter?

Art of Almost (The Whole Love)

No song better illustrates Wilco's journey from alt-country Uncle Tupelo origins to art rock and electronic noise. This one’s a wild ride. 

40.  Reservations (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Beautiful ballad is the perfect closer for Wilco's most adventurous and complicated album. 

39.  I Can’t Stand it (Summerteeth)

On the opening track of Summerteeth, Wilco offers up a shimmering pop melody and soulful groove. 

38.   Either Way (Sky Blue Sky)

The opener for Sky Blue Sky is a beautifully contemplative number.

Far Far Away (Being There)

My God. Even Hank Williams wasn’t this lonesome. 

36.  Muzzle of Bees (A Ghost is Born)

Wilco’s quiet layered guitars build to a rich atmospheric finish.

35.  Hate it Here (Sky Blue Sky)

On an album full of metaphors and abstract lyrics, Tweedy keeps it real, (“I do the dishes, I mow the lawn”) but still can’t escape the loneliness

Radio Cure (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Have we mentioned Jeff Tweedy’s knack for writing beautiful but unbearably sad songs? ("distance has no way of making love understandable").   

33.  Monday (Being There)

Dirty, loose and loud, Monday sounds like something off Exile on Main Street.

You and I (Wilco (The Album))

Lovely duet with Canadian Indy darling, Feist.

31.  Company in My Back (A Ghost is Born)

An understated track that chugs along and builds into a kaleidoscope chorus. Great use of dulcimer.

I’m Always in Love (Summerteeth)

A joyful burst of a pop song.

29.  A Magazine Called Sunset (More Like the Moon, EP)

A gorgeous melody, filled with color and longing. Somehow this track got left off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

28.   I’m the Man Who Loves You (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

While Neels Cline does the guitar shredding on the more recent albums, here it’s Jeff Tweedy bringing the noise like Neil Young.  

27.  You Never Know (Wilco (the Album))

A cheerful nod to George Harrison. Tweedy wisely observes, Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.

26.   Hotel Arizona (Being There)

A pulsing, moody and ambitious track showing us that Wilco was not just following some alt-country formula.  

25.  Hummingbird (A Ghost is Born)

Catchy hummable number with rich orchestration.

24.  I Am Trying to Break  Your Heart (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Probably Wilco’s most daring and influential song. Just ask the band, American Aquarium. 

23.  Via Chicago (Summerteeth)

You're instantly grabbed by that disturbing opening line: I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me.  

22.  I Must Be High (A.M.)

First album, first track.  Here is Wilco at their alt-country best, wistful, shimmering guitars and sing-along-chorus. (“bye, bye bye…”)

Remember the Mountain Bed (Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II)

One of the best Woody Guthrie song recordings.

20.  At Least That’s What You Said (A Ghost is Born)

Wilco kicked off their most eclectic album with a strong musical statement – a quiet contemplative reflection that explodes into a Crazy Horse style jam. 

19.   Nothinsevergonnastandinmywayagain (Summerteeth)

An infectious pop gem.

18.  One Wing (Wilco (The Album))

A moody song with terrific-sounding guitar. 

17.  The Late Greats (A Ghost is Born)

The best songs will never get sung
The best life never leaves your lungs
So good you won't ever know
You'll never hear it on the radio

16.  Poor Places (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Wilco’s beautiful lament about lack of connection is made more vivid bookended by atmospheric drones and electronic noise

15.   Outasite (Outta mind) (Being There)

An irresistible rocker and radio/MTV-friendly track off of Being There.

14.  Passenger Side (A.M.)

Tweedy’s wry country-rock ballad about a suspended driver’s license and broken heart.

13. Spiders (Kidsmoke) (A Ghost is Born)

Wilco’s hypnotic Krautrock never feels cold to me. The energy really comes through in live versions.  

12.  Sunken Treasure (Being There)

A hint of what was to come: a lonesome voice, discordant beauty and unforgettable lyrics. I was maimed by rock ‘n roll.  

Born Alone (The Whole Love)

A catchy tune, a biting guitar hook and a descent into sonic chaos that sounds like "A Day in the Life" played backwards.  

10.  Box Full of Letters (A.M)

A terrific burst of rock-pop, still with an alt-country flavor, on Wilco's debut.

Handshake Drugs (A Ghost is Born)

Simple melodies explode into guitar chaos. This is a great one live.  

8.  Heavy Metal Drummer (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

In the movie, Almost Famous, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing rock critic, Lester Bangs, declares, “the day [rock] ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real.” I'm reminded of this song - a celebration of rock music's glorious dumbness. 

7.   How to Fight The Loneliness (Summerteeth)

The answer, as you know, is:  smile all the time. 

6.  Jesus, etc. (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

A transcendent pop song: You were right about the stars. Each one is a setting sun.

5.   California Stars (Mermaid Avenue)

Speaking of stars, here's the highlight of the great Woody Guthrie recordings. The melody and Tweedy’s lazy delivery washes over you. You can feel the evening breeze. It feels like hope.

4.  Impossible Germany (Sky Blue Sky)

Yeah, it’s the guitar. Everything floats along nicely enough but when Neels Cline gets going, you’re transported to someplace wonderful.

3.   A Shot in the Arm (Summerteeth)

It’s hard to imagine a better opening lyric (The ashtray said, you were up all night) or a better example of how a song so dark can be so damn catchy.  

2.  Ashes of American Flags (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Everything that is great about Wilco is here in this song. Melody and chaos. Alienation and beauty.  

1.  Misunderstood (Being There)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard this. I tore off the plastic of my new double-CD, Being There, (purchased at a single-CD price), popped in disc one (the cream-colored one) and was blown away.  When the sonic anarchy of the intro fades, Tweedy's lonesome voice unburdens his small-town punk-dreamer-every-man's soul. And then a flight into something primal and magnificent. It’s like experiencing all of rock and roll’s dreams and nightmares in six minutes.