Graded on a Curve:
Bruce Springsteen,
Chapter and Verse

Most artist compilations serve a single purpose—to give the listener who doesn’t want to spring for more than one LP of a musician or band something to buy. This is not the case with 2016’s Chapter and Verse, which offers both casual and hardcore fans of the Boss two great reasons to shell out their hard-earned shekels.

First, it includes five previously unreleased tracks of Springsteen’s early work—two with the Castiles, one with Steel Mill, and two 1972 tracks one of which, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” is a flat-out triumph. Second, it offers up a couple of recent brilliant Springsteen tracks that offer a damn good reason for lapsed fans like yours truly to check out what he’s been up to since we tuned the poor fellow out. I’ll say right now that they establish him, along with the rare likes of Neil Young, as a musician whose work remains not just exciting but vital.

Springsteen himself chose the eighteen tracks that make up this cursory overview of his long career, and frankly the whole contraption would collapse for sheer lack of meat—a simple cut from most of his studio LPs simply isn’t enough—were it not for the unreleased early tracks, which date the whole back to 1966 when Springsteen was a member of a forgotten garage rock band called the Castiles. “Baby I” may not be a song for the ages but it generates pure raw-boned excitement, and that goes double for the Castiles’ live cover of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” which jumps and shouts to the sound of one great Farfisa organ.

Meanwhile, Steel Mill’s “He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)” is a guitar rave-up that reminds me of early Grand Funk Railroad at their best. “The Ballad of Jesse James,” which is credited to the Bruce Springsteen Band, features some truly ‘eavy guitar and one great piano, and on it Springsteen sounds like Springsteen and belts out the lyrics like his life depends on it. “Henry Boy,” on the other hand, features some fancy acoustic guitar work and would have sounded right at home on Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.

Chapter and Verse wavers a bit during Springsteen’s late eighties through early nineties period, when he released Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, and Lucky Town and I more or less stopped buying his albums. But as I noted before Chapter and Verse gives me every reason to check out what I missed thanks to its inclusion of such post-Millennium tracks as the ecstatic “The Rising,” the delirious “Long Time Comin’” (which is as great a song as any he’s ever written), and the glorious “Wrecking Ball,” a slice of “I’ll take on all comers” bravado that comes complete with pounding drum and soaring horns. All three are calls to arms and sufficient cause for yours truly to catch up on the Springsteen music he’s missed.

That Bruce Springsteen continues to make music that matters long after most of his fellow greats have more or less stopped is a cause for celebration in itself. The samples of Springsteen’s nascent genius on Chapter and Verse are cause for celebration as well. Chapter and Verse may be too flimsy an edifice to serve as a suitable overview of the Boss’ long and storied career, but there’s no doubt that it provides the signposts (and rationale) for further listening. At his best Springsteen can make the hair on the back of your neck rise like the dead on Judgment Day and the blood in your veins run quicker. And at his best he actually lived up to the seemingly absurd hype that he was the new Dylan. To quote Neil Young, “Long may he run.” After all, it’s what he was born to do.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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