The centerpiece of the best Springsteen album since Tunnel of Love, “Land of Hope and Dreams” was a bit of a ringer, having been written in the late 1990s, and debuting on 2000?s Live in NYC. And as much as I loved that version, this one moves me even more.
By taking the conceit of universal salvation from “People Get Ready” and making it even bigger by mixing it with the themes of America as melting pot, as America as a place to find your redemption and America as a place that would fuel an artist as improbable as Bruce Springsteen, “Land of Hope and Dreams” fuses Curtis Mayfield and Woody Guthrie while sounding totally like Bruce Springsteen.
And make no mistake: “Land of Hope and Dreams” is peak 21st century Bruce Springsteen, mixing a drum machine with a his over-expanded band, and featuring Clarence Clemons sax solo from beyond the grave. Big and universal and detailed and personal all at the same time. With of course, yet another killer Roy Bittan piano hook as the centerpiece.
For me, Wrecking Ball was the best Bruce Springsteen album since Tunnel of Love (though I was shocked it took him 40 years to write a song called “Jack of All Trades”) – and showed that – like Bob Dylan or Neil Young – Bruce is one of the rare legacy artists who could still pull out a great album this deep into his recording career.
And yes, he followed it up with the abysmal High Hopes – probably the worst album of his entire career – but then he followed High Hopes almost with the pretty great American Beauty EP, so all I know for sure is that whatever Bruce Springsteen does next, I’ll be onboard.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” performed live in NYC in 2000
One of the most guitar-centric songs in Bruce’s entire catalog, “Radio Nowhere” was the type of high-energy song that you would figure to come from Springsteen disciples like The Hold Steady, as opposed to the man himself, who was now pushing 60. (And, actually, its circular main riff isn’t so far off from what The Hold Steady did on several Teeth Dreams tracks).
On one hand, while I guess it could be slotted into the genre of “old man yells at cloud” anti-radio songs like “The Last DJ,” “Around The Dial” and even “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” it somehow transcends the genre. Maybe because we know that Bruce knows that all he needs to do is tune into Little Steven’s Underground Garage for some great radio.
And unlike any of Bruce’s songs since the party tunes of The River, “Radio Nowhere” seemed designed to fit right in the the Underground Garage aesthetic, a fact that certainly pleased his consigliere, since – in a bit of no-doubt winking nepotism – Little Steven namedMagic one of the coolest albums of the 2000s.
Me personally, I wouldn’t go that far, as “Radio Nowhere” is far and away the best song on Magic, which is actually a pretty goodrecord, but also a complete casualty of the Loudness War. It sounds terrible. Excited by the “Radio Nowhere” single, I was really looking forward to digging into it, but I found the album hard to listen to in a single setting.
Of course live, that wasn’t really a problem. And when Tim & Tyson and I went to see Bruce on the Magic tour, “Radio Nowhere” was the opener. And if he or I’d had aged any in the nearly two decades since I last saw him in 1988, it was instantly wiped out by the first chorus, which led directly into another terrific show.
Two hearts? More like two chords, amiright? And it may have been the simplicity of this song – located on The River between “Sherry Darling” and “Independence Day” – that caused me to overlook it until it just totally exploded out of the reunion tour live album.
After over a decade wandering in the wilderness, releasing a few bland, boring records (though Lucky Town is pretty good), Bruce reconvened the E Street Band, including – most importantly for this song – newly minted TV star Steven Van Zant, always a more dynamic personality than Nils Lofgren.
The difference: Nils was a middle manager, but Little Steven was at least the CTO. And he was exactly what Bruce needed to rejuvenate, well, everything.
For example, on the DVD of Live in NYC 2000, you can tell just how fun they’re having singing this song together. Not only is it fun to watch, it’s thematically appropriate for the song:
Once I spent my time playing tough guy scenes But I was living in a world of childish dreams Someday these childish dreams must end To become a man and grow up to dream again Now I believe in the end Two hearts girl get the job done Two hearts are better than one Two hearts are better than one
And in fact, this is yet another one that is put over for me by Van Zant’s backing vocals (so much Keef there!), and clearly Bruce recognizes that. So much so that they stops the song at the end so they can sing a Marvin Gaye song nearly acapella:
It takes two, baby It takes two Me and you, baby It just takes two
before slamming back into the song again.
It’s not epic or nothing, but the love and respect in this performance makes this one of my very favorite Springsteen performances.
“Two Hearts” performed live in NYC in 2000 on Spotify
It’s such a truism that even the greatest artists have a “down” period that Steven Hyden just did a bracket article (”brackticle”) in Grantland about it. And naturally one of the artist periods he chose was Springsteen in the 1990s, where – without the E Street Band to ground him – he suddenly felt like a man out of time.
And, of course, it didn’t help that he started the period out with a grand gesture that utterly backfired: releasing two albums on the same day. Not only had this been done the year before with Guns n’ Roses unleashing the Illusion twins on the same day, it was done better. Basically, Gun n’ Roses gave us nearly four albums worth of stellar hard rock (especially Use Your Illusion II, which … well, don’t you worry, you’re gonna hear about that record soon enough), while Bruce gave us two records of overproduced mush.
Well, that’s not entirely true: there were good songs on both records, and Lucky Town gets the nod over Human Touch because clearly Bruce didn’t overthink it as much.
(Speaking of Human Touch, while the title track is an OK song that goes on way too long, I’m not sure any human being has looked as awesome doing their thing as Bruce looks playing the guitar in the video for the title track. Maybe Michael Jordan.)
For example, “Local Hero,” a tune à clef as witty as anything in his catalog, full of smartly-strummed guitars and wailing harmonicas, but slightly overburdened by an absolutely unnecessary gospel choir. That said, I’ve always loved the chorus, and in the bridge: there was no doubt that Bruce had foreseen his ‘90s doom:
Well I learned my job I learned it well Fit myself with religion and a story to tell First they made me the king then they made me pope Then they brought the rope
It’s a pretty great song, but in the spring of 1992, one of the most fertile musical periods of my lifetime, a few great songs spread across two albums just wasn’t gonna cut it.
After the big gesture of Born in the U.S.A. and even bigger gesture of the simultaneously life-affirming and somewhat disappointing 5 disc live album, it was clearly time for Bruce Springsteen to scale it down. Which was why Tunnel of Love was such a masterstroke.
For me, it came out at the perfect time: practically the moment that what had been my most intense relationship to date was coming to a protracted and painful ending. So it was a weird comfort for someone like Springsteen to admit massive failure in love despite his massive success in his career. And that was just the first song.
The one I loved most – got kind of obsessed with, really – was the beautiful “One Step Up,” which felt like it was describing my life to a tee, as on one hand I was learning to play drums and had been tapped to manage the Video Zone, but on the other hand I was sharing a room at my dad’s place with my brother Joe because the tumultuous end of that relationship had left me with nowhere to live.
I think that “One Step Up” contains Bruce’s most beautiful singing, especially on the second verse:
Bird on a wire outside my motel room But he ain’t singin’ Girl in white outside a church in June But the church bells they ain’t ringing I’m sittin’ here in this bar tonight But all I’m thinkin’ is I’m the same old story same old act One step up and two steps back
All of the bombast is gone: his singing is direct, personal and the catch in his voice when he sings “bird on a wire” quite possibly the most lyrical moment in his entire career. All of the sadness he’s trying to express is right there.
And maybe that sadness spilled over into the Tunnel of Love tour, as the 1988 show I saw at the Shoreline with Tom from Video Zone was the most down show I’ve ever seen (out of four, a very small sample size) by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Or maybe it was my mood. The summer of 1988 – like the Autumn of 1987 – is a top 5 Worst Time of My Life, so I’m not sure I can trust any of my reactions to the music I encountered then.