Graded on a Curve:
Bruce Springsteen,
Born to Run

Well here it is—the most operatic, overblown, bombastic, and yes wonderful slab of vinyl that has ever caused my ears to cry hallelujah. On 1975’s Born to Run a cocksure Bruce Springsteen went right over the top, blew a fuse, and tried to pack as much of the majestic mystery of the New Jersey night as he could onto one LP. It was a desperate gamble but it paid off in spades, and we’re all the richer for it.

On such Phil Spector-worthy epics as “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” and especially “Jungleland” Springsteen risked all trying to say all, and the results are indeed awesome. To a small town kid like me, Born to Run captured the wild and inchoate delirium of coming of age—of wanting to go out and explode like a skyrocket in the warm summer night. Is the whole contraption at the risk of overheating? Sure. But listening to this album never fails to return me to that innocent kid desperate for experience, and for that alone I will always love it.

To more jaded ears Born to Run may have sounded hokey, but therein lies the genius of Bruce Springsteen; on Born to Run he’s as shameless a romantic of the American Night as Jack Kerouac, and he captures the wild and heedless excitement of being young and mad with an unquenchable thirst for everything. On Born to Run Springsteen says yes to the night and to all it represents. “Roll down the window/And let the wind blow back your hair,” he sings in “Thunder Road,” “Well the night’s busting open/These two lanes will take us anywhere.” On Born to Run Springsteen sings of the possibilities, and of risking it all to run the backstreets, and I’m not certain if anyone has ever come even close to doing a finer job of doing so.

Springsteen does nothing by half-measures here; he howls, barks, and emotes like a mother—just listen to his wildcat yowl on “Backstreets” and all of the dead-end passion he pours into the immortal title track. In a gushing overflow of pure street poetry he tells us there’s no place left to hide, calls himself a tramp, and delivers the greatest “Hup dat!” in the history of rock’n’roll. This isn’t music—it’s a fever dream at the end of the night, and as pure a howl of sheer animal hunger as you’re ever likely to hear.

He reins things in slightly on such tracks as the tres funky “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Meeting Across the River,” a controlled evocation of small-time losers that points the way towards to the more concise lyricism of 1978’s Darkness at the Edge of Town. But elsewhere he’s too busy setting off roman candles; “She’s the One” and “Thunder Road” may open quietly enough, but they both go off like fireworks above an oil refinery. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau may have been leery of Springsteen’s “histrionics,” but he still praised his ability to do no less than conjure a mythical America (my words, not his) from his fecund imagination.

“Jungleland,” of course, is the most histrionic of them all, and as sprawling an evocation of throwing yourself up against the wall of the possible as has ever been committed to vinyl. The glory goes to the losers who dare to risk all, Springsteen seems to be telling us, and in the end it doesn’t matter if it’s your own dream that guns you down. He sings, “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be,” and I know what he means even if I don’t really know what he means.

Overbaked? Sure. But Born to Run is also a sui generis masterpiece and testament to the delirious hankerings of the human spirit. I may be a cynic, but I hope I never become so cynical as to grow deaf to this wild flight into imagination and magic. May the piano and organ that open “Backstreets” always enthrall me, and may I always stand with the last of the Duke Street Kings. And may I always be wild at heart, and ready to throw myself headlong and heedlessly into everything. Thanks, Boss. And thanks to you as well, great state of New Jersey.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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