Few rock acts—perhaps only Bob Dylan and the Beatles—traveled as far and as fast as Bruce Springsteen from a debut record to album number seven. Consider this dazzling body of work:
- Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey (1973). While clearly the product of a fledgling performer, this album introduces some memorable songs (“Blinded by the Light,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”) and leaves no doubt that the artist bears watching.
- The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973). Issued only eight months after the debut, this album constitutes Springsteen’s first full-scale triumph. It brilliantly limns a set of urban and Jersey Shore characters in songs like “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Incident on 57th Street.” The band (especially Clarence Clemons) comes into its own here.
- Born to Run (1975). Despite their many charms, the first two LPs had sold poorly and if the fate of this disk had mirrored that of its predecessors, it might have been the end of the road for Springsteen, who had a three-album contract. But Born to Run—which incorporates elements of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Roy Orbison’s romanticism in fresh-sounding classics like the title cut, “She’s the One” and “Thunder Road”—understandably resonated with the masses. Helped along by a five-night stand at New York’s Bottom Line and simultaneous cover stories in Time and Newsweek, it turned Springsteen into a star.
- Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). This followed a long silence due to a legal dispute with manager Mike Appel, and it proved worth the wait. More guitar-based than Born to Run, the album features unforgettable performances of songs about downtrodden people who cling to their dreams, among them “The Promised Land,” “Badlands” and “Racing in the Street.”
- The River (1980). Sprawling over two discs, this collection removes any doubts about whether Springsteen’s well might dry up. Its 20 tracks include magnificent rockers like “Jackson Cage,” “Out in the Street” and “The Ties That Bind” plus sharply honed ballads such as “Independence Day,” “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway” and “Drive All Night.” Not every track is a gem, but there are more classics here than many superstars produce in an entire career.
- Nebraska (1982). The first of several complete turnabouts in Springsteen’s career, this album finds him forsaking his band in favor of a stark homemade folk recording about people that society has left behind. Songs like “Mansion on the Hill,” “Highway Patrolman” and “Atlantic City” hit their marks exactly.
- Born in the U.S.A. (1984). Another 180-degree shift, this CD delivers arena rock of the best kind. A massive hit, it includes the widely misinterpreted title cut, plus concise, terrific singles like “Dancing in the Dark,” “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days."
If you’re missing more than a couple of these records, the decision to buy The Album Collection, Vol. 1—which contains remastered versions of all of them—should be a no-brainer. But it may also be a no-brainer if you do own them all, because your CD shelf suggests that you’re a serious fan—and serious fans are going to want these upgrades.
While subtle on some tracks, the impact of the remastering proves dramatic on many, and particularly on the earlier albums, which had not been improved in decades. (All but Born to Run and Darkness are remastered here for the first time on CD.) The remasterings are by engineer and longtime Springsteen cohort Bob Ludwig, who transferred the original vinyl masters to digital via a technique called the Plangent Process, which corrects problems, recovers lost frequencies and adds depth. I’ve compared old and new versions side by side, and many of the remastered tracks deliver fuller, more lifelike sound. They also offer better stereo separation and make it much easier to distinguish individual instruments in the mix.
The packaging impresses me less. Housing the CDs in reproductions of their original vinyl LP covers and inner sleeves is one of those ideas that sounds great until you try it. Yes, this box is attractive, but when you shrink a 12-by-12-inch page to CD size, you’re likely going to need a magnifying glass to read much of the text. That’s the case with many of the lyric sheets incorporated in this release. And I can’t imagine what the designers were thinking when they put together the collection’s 60-page booklet of vintage photos and press clippings. The latter look as if they’d be fascinating to read—if only you could make out the tiny type.
Finally, bonus tracks would have been welcome, but they’re undoubtedly being saved for anniversary editions like the excellent ones we’ve already seen for Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. (A similar package for The River is reportedly in the planning stages.) Yup, you’ll probably be tempted to purchase at least some of this music yet again when those editions are released. But if you’re as much of a fan as I am, you won’t be able to resist buying these remasters now.