Charlie mentioned that he hadn't connected much with Bruce's original work since Tom Joad, and while I'm much more of a fanboy on the subject and thus have connected with a lot of that work, I agree with Charlie that Bruce's recorded peak, at least, was in the past. Still, I got to thinking ... how do I rate 21st-century Bruce Springsteen? So, here goes ... not including guest shots or reissues.
Live in New York City. Documents the Reunion Tour, which was wonderful, and features lots of terrific performances. Nonetheless, it's botched ... songs are out of order, and it matters.
The Rising. A solid album with no real duds, a handful of real winners, and plenty of songs that worked well in concert. We went to 3 shows on the Rising Tour, and they were all very good ... duh ... if not quite up to the Reunion.
Live in Barcelona. The best live Bruce available via official channels, and the best thing of any kind he has done since at least Tunnel of Love. The band is red-hot, the crowd even hotter, and for once, they didn't fuck it up ... the entire concert is right here, presented in the order it was played. Amazing that it took rock's greatest live performer 30 years to do it right.
Devils & Dust. Probably my least-favorite 21st-century Bruce. It's not bad, but I rarely return to it, and if, like The Rising, there are no real duds, unlike The Rising there are no clear classics, either. We saw him once on this tour ... it was interesting, when you've been to as many as we have it's good to get a different kind of show, and it was fun standing next to Robin Williams in the bar before the show. But if, for some awful reason, I had to miss a Bruce show, it would have been this one.
We Shall Overcome. The Seeger Sessions album itself is good, not great. Bruce continues to try new musical directions, and those people who were turned off by this one and sat out the tour have only themselves to blame. But in the end, this album is just a warmup for:
Live in Dublin. Another great live album, blows the studio stuff away, and shows a looser Bruce than you've ever seen. Since Barcelona isn't on CD (it's just a video), Live in Dublin is the best album Bruce has made thus far in the 21st century. It's telling that his two best artifacts of this century are live performances (you could throw in the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show while you're at it). We only saw one show on this tour, too, and it was a blast.
Magic. See The Rising, above: solid, no duds, handful of classics, worked well in concert. We saw four shows on this tour ... well, I saw four, Robin saw two. The last two were as good as any I've seen, and I saw him five times in the 70s (including Winterland), was at the famous "Roses and Broken Hearts" show in '88, and was at three Reunion shows ... all of those are highly-regarded, for good reason, but a year ago, at the tail end of the Magic Tour, everything was working. Not everyone agrees ... Robin thought they were strong shows but that they lacked a theme, which she looks for in his shows. But the whole stupid "crowd brings signs with requests written on them, Bruce pulls signs out of crowd and plays the songs" thing remarkably turned out to be great. You never knew what they'd play next, which to a certain extent has been true throughout his career, but here it added just the right goofy element (and I've always loved Goofy Bruce, and am always glad when he comes out to play). The last of the four shows saw, amidst the usual combination of warhorses and Magic cuts, "Trapped," "Incident on 57th Street," even the damn Detroit Medley ... the night before, we got "Spirit in the Night" and "Sherry Darling" ... even Rosie showed up, only the second time in 20 years that I'd gotten my favorite Bruce song of them all. At this point, you expect the E Street Band to be a well-oiled machine ... the requests kept them on their toes and threw them outside their comfort level a bit, which was for the best.
Working on a Dream. Won't know about the live angle until next week. A few songs seem like naturals for the concert hall ... "Good Eye" and "Outlaw Pete" come to mind, although there's nothing like "Mary's Place," which seemed kinda slight on The Rising but you could already tell how much fun it was going to be to shout "TURN IT UP!" I look forward to whatever song features Nils' nightly gee-tar workout ("Because the Night" took the honor on the first rehearsal show). We won't get Max's son on drums ... they're saving that for Europe, although I suppose he might sit in for a number.
So ... 21st-century Bruce? The two must-haves are the Barcelona and Dublin DVDs (or Blu-rays if you've got it ... not sure that Barcelona is on Blu-ray, now that I think of it). The Dublin CD is a reasonable alternative, but I think it plays better with visuals.
I've often said in recent years that we got lucky when Bruce fell into our laps as Our Favorite, because he's not just a dinosaur as he approaches 60 ... he still makes albums that are good and relevant, if not stone-cold classics, and his live shows are, if anything, better than ever, hard as that is to believe. And his recorded output over the past decade has been interesting even when it falls short ... The Rising sounded like classic Bruce, Devils & Dust returned to the soft sound, Seeger mixed Dixieland and bluegrass, Magic filtered classic Bruce through a different producer, and WOAD is very ambitious in its arrangements. Next week is gonna be fun.
Top five tracks from the primary studio albums of the 21st century, in alphabetical order:
Into the Fire
Long Walk Home
My City of Ruins
O Mary Don't You Weep