I have never heard a Springsteen record like this one. Maybe that’s because I just haven’t heard that many Springsteen records but I suspect or at least wonder that it’s because, at some point later on, he figured out who he was, and this version wasn’t part of that (or wasn’t normally part of that).
This record pairs Springsteen’s clear knack for storytelling visible on his debut with these big, contemporary arrangements. (So contemporary at times that on first listen I was taken aback and wondered if I had missed something in the story of his career.)
There’s less of an obvious Dylan influence in his songs this time out. They feel entirely Springsteen ish to me, in that they are stories of working class life in New Jersey with Dylanesque ambition but without the poetry. A number of them run on too long, but that’s not entirely on his lyrics.
But the arrangements…as I said they’re contemporary, which is a real shock compared to where he went on the next record. And my familiarity with Springsteen is that he mostly vacillates between stripped down folk and Phil Spector. Clearly I haven’t listened to him enough. (Well, enough to tell he has other sides.) Because these arrangements are often funky to a degree that is just absolutely shocking to me. And there are horns all over the place, and group backing vocals. It feels like he’s had a makeover, a makeover that doesn’t really sound like his first record or Band on the Run. And that makes sense, because this record wasn’t a commercial success. But it’s as if he was trying on a new set of clothes, it didn’t quite fit and, on the next record, he tried on a vintage set which suited him better, and the rest is history.
There’s a part of me that wants to prefer the weird approach of this record because I don’t like Springsteen’s Spector worship and because this is a pretty weird record when you come to it in the 21st century. But the arrangements often don’t feel like they match the songs and they do really feel like the wrong set of clothes for some of these songs. (That’s not true of every one of them, though. I like the arrangement for “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” but it also has little to do with the rest fo the record.)
This is a weird one and it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened to his career if this record had been the hit, and he’d stuck with a more contemporary sound than one which recalled previous eras.