Tales of the Working Man: “Bruce Springsteen: Under Review – 1978-1982″ looks at three pivotal albums by the Boss

By on September 23, 2016

In the late 70s and early 80s, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen — born on September 23, 1949, in Long Branch, New Jersey — was in the midst of one of most prolific phases of his career up to that point, releasing three pivotal albums — Darkness On the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska — which are discussed in detail in Bruce Springsteen: Under Review (sub-titled “1978-1982 Tales of the Working Man”) now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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The nearly-90 minute documentary from 2007 features archival “live” and studio recordings of some of Springsteen’s best work from this period, including “Prove It All Night,” “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” “Hungry Heart,” “The River,” “Highway Patrolman,” “Mansion On The Hill,” and many others.

There’s also a lot of commentary and insightful interviews with former Rolling Stone magazine editor Anthony DeCurtis; Chris Phillips (the editor of Backstreets); early E-Street Band member Vini Lopez; authors Jim Cullen (Born in the USA) and Larry David Smith (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and American Song); Springsteen biographers June Skinner Sayers and Eric Alterman (The Promise of Bruce Springsteen); singer-songwriter Laura Viers; Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau and many others discussing a seminal stanza in Springsteen’s career.

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The doc also includes obscure footage, seldom seen photos and lots of the kinds of historical footnotes and ephemera typically associated with the well-received Under Review DVD series.

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The documentary kicks off with an re-assessment of the blue-collar rocker’s huge breakout album Born to Run, and then the rest of the film is framed around the trilogy of albums recorded between 1979-1982, focusing on quite a lot of the individual songs which are spread across those albums (one of them a 2-LP set).

It’s a varied group of recordings which Springsteen biographer Eric Alterman sums up nicely by saying that “No matter how ridiculous the promise seems to be, [Springsteen] seems to be able to deliver on it. Even today, even thirty years later, it’s a different promise; it’s less heroic, it’s less superhuman, but it’s still pretty damn hard to find in real life.”

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Special emphasis is paid to emotional heft of Springsteen’s lyrics, many of which read like examples of 20th Century American literature to be revered right up there with John Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor, to name just two authors mentioned by the “talking heads” in the doc.

There are also some critical comments here which reveal that many believe Springsteen will never quite rise to the occasion when it comes to the delivery of those tunes due to his own limitations as an artist, something even Springsteen himself agrees with.

For instance, Christgau surprisingly evokes comparisons between Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie but nearly invalidates the comparison when he says, “The fact of the matter is there’s a sprightliness about the way [Guthrie] delivers a song; Springsteen can’t do it.”

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There’s some discussion about the legal problems he faced when he became embroiled in a lawsuit with a former manager (it resulted in his three-year prohibition from recording new material, which, as Springsteen says, put him “out of commission”), which was then followed by the recording of Darkness On the Edge of Town, described herein as “the sound of hope and dreams colliding with the cold, hard truth of life.”

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After Darkness, Springsteen had recorded a batch of new songs that were intended for an album to-be-called The Ties That Bind, but he eventually set the project aside because he felt the songs were “too personal,” plowing them under and returning to more fertile soil for his next crop of tunes.

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His next album, a double-LP set called The River, arrived in October 1980, featuring an entirely new outlook on life with twenty new songs (including his first Top Ten single, “Hungry Heart”) that were more expansive in their scope and more varied in their themes than anything Springsteen had released before, with topics at their heart that writer Anthony DeCurtis says were “not the stuff of pop songs… Nobody else did that.”

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The third album discussed in the documentary — Nebraska, released in September 1982 — featured some of his darkest material to date, populated by characters that were “tired of coming out on the losing end.”

In the stark, existential title song, “Nebraska,” a serial killer rationalizes his murder spree by saying, “Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in the world.”

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Springsteen himself, offering up his assessment of the title track, says “You can put together a lot of detail but unless you pull something up out of yourself, it’s just going to lie flat on the page,” which certainly gives the viewer at home something to ponder further.

About the album itself, DeCurtis says, “For younger musicians, particularly indie-musicians, getting through the scale of what the Bruce idea has become requires a certain amount of work, whereas Nebraska is just there for them,” while Larry David Smith adds: “To unpack Nebraska you have to sort of rearrange things, and when you do that, it’s really coherent.”

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In his recently published New York Times review of Springsteen’s brand new autobiography, Born To Run (Simon & Schuster, 2016), Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Richard Ford — apparently a huge Springsteen fan — talks about the “authenticity” that can be found in his best work, a topic the documentary delves into it in detail, since these three albums are among his most authentic recordings.

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Here’s an excerpt from that highly enjoyable review (read the whole thing at the link, especially if you’re a Springsteen or Richard Ford fan):

“His work’s entirety — the songs, the music, the guitar, the voice, the persona, the gyrations, the recitativos, the whole artifice of ‘the act,’ or what Springsteen calls the ‘sum of all my parts’ — is so dense, involved and ­authentic-seeming as to all but defy what we think we know about how regular human beings make things at ground level.

Having been present at many of his performances, I can attest that you’re often close to being overwhelmed by what you’re hearing and seeing. It’s an experience that draws you toward itself — to taste the best and richest stuff, but also naturally enough to find things out, such as if you’re being ­deceived.

In Born to Run, Springsteen seems at his most actual when he’s telling us how in fact one gets to be him. He’s preoccupied by his own and his music’s ‘authenticity,’ even though he understands that the act is ever the act. He’s close to humble about his musician’s ‘journeyman’ status, about how rock music is at heart ‘escapist entertainment,’ and concedes that rock ‘n’ roll itself as a vehicle for ideas (always questionable to me) is in serious decline.

“But he’s also straight up and smart about just what the whole Springsteen enterprise requires. Talent. O.K., that’s one. A great band behind you for all the years. Two.

But also alarming self-certainty at a preposterously young age (‘It is ultimately ‘my stage,’ ‘my band,’ ‘my will,’ ‘my musicians’).

Near-feral discipline he’s more than willing to impose on self and anybody else in earshot — especially the band. Studious and encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and rock history.

An ungodly number of irreplaceable life hours spent practicing, practicing, practicing in small, ill-lit rooms.

A ruthless calculation to be nothing less than great, powered by a conviction that greatness can exist and be redeeming.

A willingness to imagine himself as a dutiful and grateful avatar of his own adored fan base.

An ease with his influences, teachers and heroes. An uncommon awareness of his personal frailties (About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one).

A ­Picasso-like certainty that all art comes out of a “rambunctious gang feeling” born of the neighborhood.

And a complex fear of failure mingled with the understanding that success is often the enemy of the very authenticity he’s seeking — so you gotta stay on your guard 24-7. Or, at least, from 1967 to now.”

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Check out Bruce Springsteen: Under Review – 1978-1982 Tales of the Working Man now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.