For the last couple of weeks our ‘home’ laptop has been repaired, so instead of my weekly rota of podcasts, I’ve been rediscovering the often unadulterated joy that comes from listening to a complete album. Much as I like the Genius function and compiling my own playlists, I grew up listening to albums.
A great album is far more than the sum of its individual songs. In many ways it’s like a symphony, with linked thematic material, and often takes you on some kind of journey – emotionally, musically, and sometimes with an actual story or concept. The songs are in a particular order for a reason. Sometimes I think putting albums on ‘shuffle’ or simply selecting one or two tracks is like remarking that ‘I really like that book, especially chapter 12…’. We don’t treat films or books like that, so why albums?
Released 35 years ago, Born to Run is a truly great album; the album that ‘broke’ Bruce Springsteen as a major star. Its 8 songs span just 39’26”, but say more and cover more emotions than many artists’ entire careers. It tells of youthful optimism, frustration, rage, despair and ultimately disappointment. It’s a bitter rite of passage, but the brilliance of its music and power of its lyrics make it utterly compelling from start to finish. I must have listened to it a dozen times in the last week, and it still sends shivers down my spine.
The album starts with a barnstorming track. Thunder Road tells of smalltown frustration, but is filled with optimism. The lyrics are amazingly evocative, from the opening description of Mary dancing across the porch, to the visions of her dreams. It’s clear from the outset, however, that this is no idealised fantasy.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore …
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright
Well I’m no hero, that’s understood, All the redemption I can offer girl is beneath this dirty hood…
The journey is begun. And while we’re hopeful that their promises and aspirations are fulfilled, it’s not exactly convincing…
The two sides of the album seem to mirror each other, with the most upbeat and positive Thunder Road and the titular Born to Run as their opening tracks. The middle songs on each side are vivid episodes from life on the streets. But they’re no bundles of joy, filled with references to loneliness, bitterness and uncertainty. The protagonists talk a good game, but their fragility is often painfully obvious. Despite the bravado and determination, these songs tell a story of people trapped within The American Dream, and ultimately crushed by disappointment
You work nine to five and somehow you survive to the night…
The final tracks of the two sides are epic tales of thwarted dreams and disappointment that take up 40% of the album’s running time. Backstreets truly brings home to the listener that thes youthful dreams are truly just dreams. It’s a look back from some sadder, less exciting future, and it’s not a rose-tinted memory.
Blame it on the lies that killed us, blame it on the truth that ran us down,
You can blame it all on me, Terry, it don’t matter to me now.
When the breakdown hit at midnight there was nothing more to say,
But I hated him, and I hated you when you went away…
Laying here in the dark you’re like an angel on my chest
Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness.
Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see,
Trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be.
Well after all this time we find we’re just like all the rest,
Stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets…
Jungleland finishes the album, and once and for all shatters the dreams, as ‘The Magic Rat and the barefoot girl’ make one last doomed bid for freedom.
In the tunnels uptown, the Rat’s own dream guns him down
As shots echo down them hallways in the night.
Noone watches as the ambulance pulls away…
The ambitions of those trying to escape the town full of losers are dashed. The whole journey from start to finish has been filled with tension. Trapped by their own aspirations, the protagonists of these tremendous songs are constantly struggling to survive, living for small crumbs of comfort racing cars or making deals.
Born to Run is a timeless album that has as much to say about The American Dream today as it did in 1975.