From the first chords of The E Street Shuffle you get a taster of what this album will contain. A mad orchestral introduction, catchy guitars and a vocal that takes you over so many characters it leaves you breathless. Springsteen paints the boardwalk scene perfectly, a crazy cast of characters and quick-tempo instrumentation. A real party tempo introduction, a fine homage to a scene to which Springsteen will soon be bidding a fond farewell.
Quite frankly 4th Of July Asbury Park (Sandy) was and remains one of Bruce’s most romantic songs. The guitars of the opening just drip with a gorgeous quality that makes you glad to be alive. You can see the fireworks, you can feel the warmth of that July night and the characters are so close you can see them, hear them and almost touch them. All that gets blended together to perfection, Springsteen’s quiet – almost lazy – vocal is perfect as his main character lets us know that his boardwalk life is through, true for both him and Springsteen. It’s a heart-warming farewell that is tinged with sadness because, on the verge of greatness, one really gets the feeling that he will never return to this world.
The opening minute of Kitty’s Back is musical perfection. Springsteen teases the notes out so effortlessly that the whole sequence leaves you tingling. If an instrument was ever capable of orgasm, the guitar surely reaches that level. It doesn’t get much better than this, except it does, Bruce’s whispering vocal and the saxophone work in between the verses is nice and everything meets in the middle. It’s quick, slow, every member of the band has a moment in the sun and it keeps the listener gripped at every part. The instrumental part just seems to blend together and keeps going, then we get more of the story before we actually do find out just who is back in town – Kitty’s back and don’t you forget it. “Ooooooh what can I do?” If you are the listener, not much except sit back and listen to a brilliant marriage between Springsteen and his band.Perhaps the weakest song on the album is Wild Billy’s Circus Story but if that is true, it’s still got just enough to make sure you don’t skip the track. No one would blame you, knowing what IS on the other side of this circus story but the picture painted is still extremely eccentrically vivid. A colourful cast of circus folk, all aboard Puerto Rican Jane’s our next stop.
From the piano introduction to Incident On 57th Street you know it’s something special and the drops of guitar notes melt into the organ and give a sunrise on record, the best hint of musical perfection since the last one! The guitar wails and all is well on that score but I think the most impressive part of this track is the lyrics. The picture, as always is clear and the words are beautiful. When “word is out the cops have found the vein” the listener is with them. Then we have the crawling base line as Johnny watches Janey sleeping, those romantic young boys as the line is echoed with a stunning harmony before Bruce stops everything – “Hey Spanish Johnny, you wanna make a little easy money tonight?” With such words of whispering invitation, who would turn it down? Then the drums come back; you can picture Johnny arranging to meet Jane tomorrow on lover’s lane. Springsteen simply talks this final chorus and allows the listener to marvel in the scene and the music before it builds back up – the guitars, drums and the vocal repetition of Good night it’s all right, Jane falls away to leave us with as we came in – with simple piano cutting straight into Rosalita.
The three-song section flows together with such brilliance that it could be the finest track sequence not only from Bruce but on ANY rock album ever made. The three final tracks are the musically and lyrically the most perfect to date. The pictures are crystal clear, the sentiments are poetic and the music is flawless.
Our final track is less a serenade than a piece of rock opera, merging styles and bringing together all the themes to bring the album to an extremely fitting conclusion. An album of this quality would need a final track of some majesty to complete the art; Springsteen delivers with New York City Serenade. The piano piece is enthralling, shut your eyes and you could be at a Rachmaninov recital where the pianist is in tails and you watch as he thrusts his hands down and shakes his head madly with every note, sweat dripping from his white-haired head. Open your eyes again and you realise it isn’t that at all, it isn’t some moody composer in tails playing to a packed Albert Hall, this is just part of the vision of Mr Springsteen and the execution of David Sancious. This is just the introduction! The piano seems to go from moody composer to relaxed jazz instantly, and you pound your hands as every note is played. Then, the piano playing moves between the powerful and the relaxed styles as if the two sides are in a musical joust, before slowing, as if in the war between classical and jazz, old jazz hands has won the day. The sudden introduction of acoustic guitar and the crawling, crystal clear playing is lovely as each note resounds in your ear and then the singer sings his song and you remember what it was all for. “So walk tall, or baby don’t walk at all!” the combination of the piano’s falling scale and the crescendo of the string arrangement is so beautiful, you are almost surprised that he screams “Fish lady!”. We have the gospel-esque “She wont take the train” part and then a return to the pure strings and piano suite. Springsteen doesn’t need to sing over this part, he talks, he gently whispers and lets the music speak for itself. The track is stunning, at once complicated, simple, harsh and gentle, rock and jazz. A perfect end to a perfect album!
The only thing that is better than the tracks on this album is the pure joy that comes with the knowledge that when the final track is done, you can return to the beginning and relive it all again. Aren’t we all glad we are alive!
For many this marked the beginning of the end of Bruce’s long-winded poetically brilliant pieces, they would soon be replaced by harsher images and an altogether more realistic picture backed by either brutal rock and roll (Darkness) or stark acoustic tracks (Nebraska). That is what makes this album a masterpiece; it is a beautiful accident – the kind that Bruce would successfully and intentionally construct in his next album.
© Simon A. Moult / Moultymedia 2006.
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