A predictable parade of uber-hits.
Considering his working class hero status, Bruce Springsteen is quite the bloviator. This is obvious to anyone who has ever watched an interview with the man and witnessed him turn his answer to a question like “When is your new album coming out?” into a 30-minute harangue on the meaning of Woody Guthrie to American life. The rambling, nearly free association excerpts that have thus far been made available from his predictably titled new memoir, Born to Run—along with the similarly-styled recounting of the E Street Band’s experience playing the 2009 Super Bowl halftime show that inspired Springsteen to write the book—seem to be no exception. That being the case, insight into the Boss’ history, songwriting process and personality is, as ever, probably better gleaned from listening to his staggering catalog of music rather than hearing or reading him talk about himself. His storytelling prowess as a songwriter speaks for itself.
Which is why Chapter and Verse, billed as a companion album to the memoir, feels, for the most part, so disappointingly unrevealing and predictable. Featuring a career-spanning 18-song tracklist hand selected by Springsteen himself, the compilation is an odd beast that suggests three different directions in which it could have ultimately gone. Two of these directions—a collection of early unreleased outtakes or a broader survey of underappreciated deep cuts—could have served as both illuminating to readers of Born to Run and of interest to both casual and die-hard Springsteen fans independent of the book. However, the third—yet another Springsteen greatest hits comp trotting out the same old warhorses that FM radio beat to death decades ago—would have achieved total superfluity and cash-grabbery. Unfortunately, Chapter and Verse only feints tantalizingly briefly in the first two directions while giving itself over mostly to the third.
The first five cuts on Chapter and Verse are far and away of the most historical and listening interest, despite their generally suboptimal audio quality. Recorded between 1966 and 1972 with various pre-E Street Band backup bands, these five songs—all but one early Springsteen compositions and all previously unreleased—find Bruce reaching toward a surprising array of influences in his attempts to eventually find his own sound. While all of these songs are fascinating when heard from the perspective of tracking Springsteen’s progression as a songwriter and bandleader, some stand on their own better than others. For instance, “Baby I,” recorded in ‘66 with Springsteen’s first band, the Castilles, is amusing in that the adolescent Bruce’s voice is totally unrecognizable, but imagine it being performed by your 16-year old nephew’s garage band and it becomes immediately evident that it’s merely a thoroughly forgettable sub-Troggs mid-‘60s pop song. Meanwhile, the most recent of the album’s unreleased tracks, 1972’s “Henry Boy,” is a dull, overly wordy folk song in the austere, imitative style that partially bled through onto Springsteen’s debut album for Columbia, Greetings From Asbury Park.
The other unreleased songs are more compelling. A second Castilles cut—a version of Bo Diddley’s oft-covered “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” recorded live on stage in 1967 in Springsteen’s hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, is musically ramshackle but lively and rhythmic—lends at least some credence to the almost mythical status the young Bruce built up as a guitar slinger and showman in New York and Jersey clubs during the late ‘60s. Jumping ahead to 1970 and the formation of Steel Mill, a proto-E Street Band that featured Danny Federici, Vini Lopez and, later, Steven Van Zandt, we see Springsteen playing hopped-up big band rock ‘n soul with “He’s Guilty (The Judge Song),” not entirely dissimilar to the sound he would eventually make famous but with a meaner, harder edge and a much more central focus on Springsteen’s impressive guitar work. On the other hand, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” recorded in just a few months before Springsteen started work on Greetings in 1972, cribs from the Band’s lazy country rock sound, but Springsteen imbues it with his trademark bombast. All these songs offer intriguing alternate trajectories that Springsteen’s musical journey could have taken, but they were ultimately too derivative to form the basis of a career with the same level of longevity that the Boss has enjoyed; he was wise to continue searching until he hit on the Born to Run sound.
Unfortunately, once Chapter and Verse moves into the post-fame era of Springsteen’s career, the surprises are so few that the album becomes essentially useless, whether the only Bruce album you own is The Essential Bruce Springsteen or you have a collection of 5,000 E Street Band bootlegs sitting in your basement. As it cycles through the hits for the millionth time—“Born to Run,” “Badlands,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” et al—it begins to reek terribly of cash cow flogging. Presumably the whole idea behind this album was for Springsteen to choose songs that charted his personal growth, as mapped in parallel by his prose in Born to Run. But what more could we possibly learn about “Born to Run” that hasn’t already been endlessly commentated on by millions of rock critics and Springsteen himself and that could make listening to it one more time in the midst of this record’s tracklist a worthwhile exercise? What additional context surrounding “The River” could we glean that wasn’t already provided by Springsteen’s famous spoken intro to the song on Live 1975/85? These songs, classics though they are, have reached a saturation point; re-releasing them yet again is pointless no matter what Bruce writes about them in his book.
The scant few minor curve balls in Chapter and Verse’s tracklist do suggest that Springsteen could have turned the album into a reclamation project for a few deep cuts that chart his personal story more explicitly than, say, “Born in the U.S.A.” That’s clearly why he included Nebraska’s stoic “My Father’s House” or Devils & Dust’s hoedown “Long Time Comin’” over the likes of “Thunder Road” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Heard in sequence with Chapter and Verse’s otherwise predictable parade of uber-hits, they hold their own in terms of quality and offer brief glimpses at a few of the many sides of Bruce Springsteen his innumerable greatest hits comps never show.