I have a complicated relationship with Springsteen, mostly caused by watching too much Much More Music (basically Canada’s VH1) when I was an impressionable teenager. So, to evaluate Springsteen’s debut album fairly, If eel like I have to try to pretend I’ve never heard Springsteen before nor have I heard of him. That’s impossible, but I’m going to (fail to) try.
It’s clear that this is a major new voice in American songwriting: Springsteen has a strong sense of melody and his lyrics are a unique amalgam of Dylanesque poetry and portraits of working class New Jersey in the early 1970s. Though there have been numerous songwriters who have debuted since Bob Dylan, few have shown as much promise as “The Next Dylan” as Springsteen does here, if only because Springsteen manages a balance between accessibility and complexity that most of the heirs to Dylan couldn’t maintain.
But the key here is ‘promise’ as I don’t think he executes. This is more of a “imagine what if” record than a success. For one thing, when Springsteen fully commits to his Dylan worship, it almost turns into (self) parody. Take, for example, “Blinded by the Light.” Dylan’s lyrics from his peak are densely layered portraits of situations and feelings that practically require a codex to decipher. But Springsteen wants to be understood (ambiguity is bad) and so “Blinded By the Light” is bathed in poetry but the poetry is just substituting for the more direct approach he takes on many of the other songs; there’s no added meaning here than Springsteen had fun with a rhyming dictionary.
And then there are the arrangements: this record pulls back and for between stripped down performances and full band performances. Springsteen (shockingly) wanted more full band performances while the producers (rightfully) preferred the stripped-down performances. The result is a compromise which lays bare Springsteen’s sense of aesthetics. Springsteen wants to use Dylan’s innovations to tell real, important stories about where he grew up (rather than what Dylan used it for) but he also wants his music to sound like the music of his youth which, in many ways, is the aesthetic opposite of Dylan’s innovative approach to lyric writing.
I don’t love this but that’s because I have baggage. Had I heard this in 1973 (had I been alive) I think I would have been very excited at the potential, at the very least.