He's original, universally loved, never "sold out," is outspoken on politics when it matters, and genuinely appears to care about his craft and his fans.
It seemed like it would be nice to like him. I've turned down offers for free tickets to his shows, thinking that someone more enthusiastic should get them. His music just didn't connect with me. I've managed to maintain a 20-year fondness for acts like John Mellencamp, Seger and Petty, all of them Springsteen knock-offs in some way, without more than a twinkle of enthusiasm for Bruce.
Timing is behind some of it. In the 90s, when my musical tastes expanded to the point where I began to hold aggressive opinions, he had two radio hits, "Secret Garden" (figuring prominently in Jerry McGuire) and "The Streets of Philadelphia" (featured in the Tom Hanks weeper). Once a guy's musical output becomes mentally linked to Renee Zelwiger and an AIDS-afflicted Tom Hanks, it's tough to recover. Plus, these whispery songs sound more like outtakes from Carol King's "Tapestry" than visionary rocksmanship.
After September 11, he released an album called "The Rising." It's a record that means a lot to some people. Clearly, it came from the heart -- he wasn't exploiting or cashing in. Quite the opposite. This was a product of sincerity, written by someone who felt strong convictions and human sympathy. There's that saying about poetry and sincerity, though. Divorced from the historical moment (which may be impossible to do) it hit me as a creative failure. Subjected to it a few times, I heard a pompous, lumbering, jagged mess, in a category with movies like The Life of David Gale, where an earnest effort to depict serious issues fails from the start and gets worse as it goes along. If I were to list the worst works by major artists in any genre, "The Rising" would be there. After that, I avoided his Pete Seeger album, not based on any strong aversion, but because Jeff Tweedy and Billy Bragg did something roughly similar a few years before him, and it was tough to imagine Springsteen topping that.
Still, this isn't a matter of dislike. It's a blind spot more than hostility. The famous opening seconds of "Born to Run," to my ear, sound like a mix of elevator music and children's band recital. This is a matter of taste but also makes me an idiot, I know. Some of the lyrics are just awful: Meat Loaf, expecting to be taken seriously.
Wendy let me in I wanna be your friendIt's ungrounded sentimentality, a male soap opera pumped up on testosterone and longing. Is Springsteen a more influential and original artist than John Mellencamp and Bob Seger? Yes, most definitely. But I hear "Jack and Diane" or "Mainstreet" and the songs are about things I recognize. Bob Seger's blue collar stories were about ascent and resilience; Springsteen's were more about avoiding suffocation. In Springsteen I recognize -- well, I'm not exactly sure what, but it's something like a guy you knew in high school who just broke up with his girlfriend, got severely wasted, and sits in the back seat yelling out words while the classic rock station plays in the background. Even his quieter output, like "The Ghost of Tom Joad," approximates an undisciplined emotional gush.
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
Well run till we drop, baby well never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
`cause baby Im just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels
I want to know if love is wild, girl I want to know if love is real
It's not all dead to me. Portions of "Thunder Road" are pretty wonderful ("Show a little faith, there's magic in the night/ You ain't a beauty, but hey you're all right"), I still like "Going Down" the way I did when I was a little kid, and "Glory Days" is good drinking music.
This criticism leads to one conclusion: Bruce Springsteen's "Magic" is an excellent album.
It's everything I've wanted to like about Springsteen without the parts that killed the mood. There are still his weak spots that bug me: the seemingly endless refrains of dull phrases ("I'll work for your love dear") and a rotten opening line ("Pour me a drink Theresa in one of those glasses you dust off") but in "I'll Work for Your Love" they're redeemed in a bleak love story with frightening Biblical allusions. "Radio Nowhere" sounds like it could have been backed by Crazy Horse, and what could have been another retread about the homogeny of commercial radio is saved by clever poetic lyrics (I was spinning 'round a dead dial / Just another lost number in a file / Dancin' down a dark hole / Just searchin' for a world with some soul): catch the reference to "Dancing in the Dark"? He alludes to "Mystery Train" later.
"Girls in Their Summer Clothes" is another big success, nostalgic and romantic. It's open to interpretation, but it sounds like the reflections of a guy past his prime, walking through a town where he has a long personal history, swept up by the voyeurism and escapism of the younger "girls in their summer clothes" who "pass me by." It's sad and beautiful at once, like that part of "Thunder Road" that I admire.
There are at least two references to burning cities (in "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and "Last to Die") and there's "Devil's Arcade," set in the Iraq War. The album doesn't cross into the overtly political, though. As an album, "Magic" has a natural counterpart in Neil Young's visionary 2003 release "Greendale," a long story-album about loss of community post-9/11 that smartly chose never to raise the topic directly. Neil's "Greendale" had a sense of a pastoral America that was slipping away and couldn't be regained, and in "Magic," Springsteen has his dreamy, burned-out towns, which he haunts with the specter of war and violence without directly imposing them. "Magic" is subtler than "Greendale," much more accessible, and he doesn't take his eye off the ball.
"Magic" somehow manages to create an almost-flawless blend of the personal and the political. It never becomes as overtly preachy and riled as the eponymous song in "Born in the U.S.A." He's created something more mature and nuanced than that.
Most artists don't get better with age: too much nostalgia was a curse to Neil's "Prairie Wind," but somehow Springsteen's "Magic" harnesses it perfectly. For the first time in his music, I know what he's talking about without relating to the experience. There are a lot of reasons to be enthusiastic.