TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1988

UNDERTONE

Music

I WANT TO like Bruce Springsteen, and like most of us I do, at the very least because he has an honest heart (though of course, as he says of all of us, also a hungry one). I admire him, too, for saying—on his latest album, Tunnel of Love—that he's got two faces. He's willing, to face a shadow self that jumps out while he's kissing his wife under, he romantically insists, a willow tree: “Two faces have I.”

I too have a shadow, with a critic's face. My shadow was trained in classical music, and it asks me to justify not Springsteen's heart, but his work: his melody, for instance, which seems to speak best in short rhythmic leaps. His longer tunes and some of his quieter ones—the tunes he writes that don't have simple symmetries—can lose me, because their parts aren't differentiated enough. “Thunder Road,” on Born to Run, would be one example: it's a desperate drive in the dark with no road map, a flood in which I can't find my footing. Some of Springsteen's songs have little shape, or are shaped too much alike; that seems to happen in the hush of his darkest album, Nebraska, as if the songs had ventured just a few steps toward the light before they were born.

His harmony: two chords, three, maybe four, almost always the same, with emphasis, especially in slower songs, on what a classical musician would call subdominants, which sound like angular patches of peaceful green, not quite stemming the music's flow, but not quite urging it onward. I miss the union of sounds and words—of sounds pointing to words—that I've heard from Bob Dylan, whose intentions might be ambiguous but whose songwriting architecture emphasizes the goal of each line.

Nor is Springsteen known for the fine texture, or the rough texture, or the layered or precisely cadenced texture, of his music; except for the animal roar of Clarence Clemons' sax, his E Street Band has almost a generic sound, if triumphantly so—Everyband writ large. Nor—unlike Chuck Berry, Prince, or the Rolling Stones—does Springsteen lay down a groove on which his songs irresistibly ride. His music sounds to me like a drive toward emotional release. It's not the classic rock ‘n’ roll victory, a liberation renewed each moment that the music lasts.

What does set the music apart, as even my shadow would admit, is Springsteen's own hoarse voice, which by standards John Cage might suggest—invoking the lure of sound itself, free from the expectations even of rock—would be what starts to give each song its musical name. So then my shadow jumps up to ask: can the band frame or else mirror that voice? Maybe it's no surprise that the subtlest matching comes in two songs from shadowy Nebraska, where Springsteen sings accompanied only by himself: “State Trooper” (dark echoes of Springsteen's voice, and skeletal acoustic guitar); and “Highway Patrolman” (two brothers, one good, one bad, the story, which has no ending, told with three simple chords, made timeless by the background glow: the same guitar, faint harmonica).

And now I have to ask my shadow about his standards. Springsteen's songs can be unformed, yes. But he doesn't just sing about uncertainty: he throws himself in its teeth. Do his songs need to be unformed, to protect him—and me—from too much certainty? I listen to Born to Run, and I'm seized by playing and production that give equal emphasis to details that never coalesce, as they might in a more ordered world, but instead, in a kind of fever, endlessly change; it's as if the songs and I explode in every direction at once. That my shadow would forbid, because his notions of structure enforce hierarchy, and too much control. “Together,” Springsteen sings, “we could break this trap.” Can I believe him?

Gregory Sandow, a former classcal-music critic. He now writes about pop.