You can’t carry a nickname like The Boss around without having lived quite a life. Bruce Springsteen is one of the world’s most recognisable artists, with a body of work that puts him in the upper echelons of music history.
Since the self-penned and autobiographical stage performance “Springsteen on Broadway” hit the boards in October, much has been written and spoken about the man’s influences. With Springsteen now approaching the ripe old age of 70, we take a look at what themes have underpinned one of the most extensive back catalogues in music.
“There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song / Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long / There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man / Who’ll make his home in the American land”
American Land – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – 2006
Where else to start? Springsteen’s love for America has been evident in his music throughout his career, most obviously with his seven-single and 30 million-selling 1984 album Born In the USA. Centred around the iconic opening track of the same name, it’s an album that underpins Springsteen’s entire career to this day and that propelled him into the consciousness of the mainstream. Indeed, the track’s meaning is often wildly interpreted, much to Springsteen’s chagrin. This theme of misinterpretation has continued throughout his career, in fact, with songs such as The Wall, found on the 2014 album High Hopes, often considered to be talking about the pain of human sacrifice.
Springsteen’s undying belief in the spirit of American people is never more obvious than in tracks such as We Take Care Of Our Own, the lead-off track on 2012’s Wrecking Ball. Equally recognized as his angriest and fiercest album, Wrecking Ball enjoyed huge critical and commercial success, selling 196,000 copies in its first week.
“Well I’ve been a losin’ gambler / Just throwin’ snake eyes / Love ain’t got me downhearted / I know up around the corner lies / My fool’s paradise / In just another roll of the dice”
Roll Of The Dice – Human Touch – 1992
Another theme never far from Springsteen’s delicate lyrics is luck, so much so that more or less every album features a track referring to casino games. Atlantic City is a song popular with Springsteen’s most foolhardy fans and is the only Nebraska inclusion on his 13 million-selling 1995 Greatest Hits compilation album. It’s a thinly-veiled love song that makes its way onto the setlist of every Springsteen show and has been covered by a wide range of artists including as Ed Sheeran, Mumford & Sons, Jamie T and Eddie Vedder.
From Tumbling Dice by The Rolling Stones, The Winner Takes It All by ABBA and Springsteen’s very own Roll Of The Dice, the risk-and-reward nature of casino games has long been a central theme in musical culture. These examples all use gambling as a metaphor for luck and choice in life or in relationship struggles, where other songs are known to be more literal. Springsteen lurches between the two, with tracks such as Land Of Hopes And Dreams and Shackled And Drawn draping these themes across love songs, and the likes of Easy Money a no-holds-barred love letter to the thrill of the dice.
“I’ve got my finger on the trigger / And tonight faith just ain’t enough / When I look inside my heart / There’s just devils and dust”
Devils & Dust – Devils & Dust – 2005
The theme of spirituality in Springsteen’s music throughout his career is evident, often jarring a touch with his cold sense of reason. Inspired by gospel music heard as a child, Springsteen’s lyrics bring to life the idea of community as religion time and again.Songs of this nature are littered throughout his back catalogue, but make more of an impact in his later work. Mary’s Place, from 2002’s The Rising, is one such example of rasping spirituality, as is Wrecking Ball’s We Are Alive. Quite what Springsteen means in describing his personal spirituality is a mystery, especially in recent years.
A number of mid-century rock artists of a similar sound employ spirituality in their music and lyrics of course, including The Hollies, Fleetwood Mac and Johnny Cash. What is interesting is to see just how many of the bands and artists Springsteen has influenced go about their business, from spunky New York lyricist Stevie B Wolf to more established names such as Arcade Fire and Badly Drawn Boy.
“Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true / But you and I know what this world can do / So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see / And I’ll wait for you / If I should fall behind / Wait for me”
If I Should Fall Behind – Lucky Town – 1992
Perhaps the most commonly employed theme in music, romance has never been far from Springsteen’s repertoire. Rarely one for gooey and doe-eyed lyrics, Springsteen’s early lust for romance has evolved into a gritty, realistic and sometimes deprecating depiction of relationships in the modern day. Married for the second time since 1991, The Boss has always been very upfront about the stresses of a rock n roll marriage, and on the following year’s Lucky Town, many of the lyrics are clearly devoted to young nuptials.
The multi-million selling River’s eponymous track is a heartbreaking tale of young parents navigating a largely loveless relationship, but even then there is a sense of romance to it, a sense of duty to the relationship that neither dare to break. The flipside can be found on 1973 album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, where the concert-making track Rosalita is one of his best-known love songs. Telling the story of a lustful young couple wanting to get away from it all, Springsteen invites young Rosalita to run away with the money from his record contract. How it could have all been so different.
The maturity of his attitudes towards love and relationships is clear for all to see throughout his 53-year career and serves as one of the truly evolving narratives of one of rock’s longest and most successful careers.
Indeed, the lyrics of one of music’s finest lyricists cannot be constrained to a handful of themes. His working-class roots, life circumstances and his wavering belief in the American Dream are all further examples of influences, as are his many heavy musical influences, which vary from the likes of Ron Kovich and Roy Orbison to Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.