Bruce Springsteen’s Musical Style in 10 Songs
Hear our selection of the The Boss’s best songs
In the late 1960s, a young singer from New Jersey was trying to make a mark in a string of bands. He was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, and played folk-rock tunes. In 1972, he was signed to Columbia Records by the legendary Clive Davis, and the rest is history.
Popularly known as The Boss, Bruce Springsteen celebrated his 72nd birthday this week. It’s been an illustrious career, with 20 studio albums and an equal number of Grammy awards. He’s been described as a pioneer of ‘heartland rock,’ which blends American roots music with lyrics that talk about the everyday lives of American people. His live shows, in many cases accompanied by the E Street Band, have drawn packed venues for years.
Many listeners would obviously be familiar with Springsteen’s most popular songs, which include “Born To Run,” “Born In The USA,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Badlands” and “Streets Of Philadelphia.” Yet, there are many other compositions that are symbols of his style. The list below mentions only 10 of them, and many fans might have other favorites too.
All these songs have been written by him – we have thus excluded his brilliant 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, containing songs popularised by folk legend Pete Seeger. Here are 10 archetypal Springsteen songs from the past 48 years, in chronological order.
“Blinded By The Light” – Greetings From Ashbury Park, N.J. (1973)
The opening song from Springsteen’s debut album Greetings From Ashbury Park, N.J., it actually became more famous through a cover version by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Yet, the Springsteen original is a good representation of his early style, blending vaudeville, folk and an obvious Bob Dylan influence. The song got a revival following the 2018 release of Gurinder Chadha’s film Blinded By The Light, about a British-Pakistani fan.
“Thunder Road” – Born To Run (1975)
Considered by connoisseurs to be one of Springsteen’s best songs, it is about a woman Mary, her boyfriend and their last attempt to make things work. Beginning with harmonica and a piano backdrop, the song just builds up, using classic lines like “Well I got this guitar and I learnt how to make it talk” and “I know you’re lonely for words I ain’t spoken.” This is the opening track of the album Born To Run.
“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” – Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)
The title track is the concluding piece of the 1978 album, which begins with the fan-favorite “Badlands.” The song is about a less-fortunate person who refuses to give up, with Springsteen singing, “Some folks are born into a good life, and other folks get it anyway, anyhow; Well then I lost my money and I lost my wife, them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.” This album was released three years after Born To Run and one senses a change in Springsteen’s voice texture.
“Hungry Heart” – The River (1980)
An uptempo song with a glorious saxophone back-up by Clarence Clemons, it was written by Springsteen on the request of Joey Ramone of the Ramones. The catchline “Everybody has a hungry heart”, inspired by the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem ‘Ulysses,’ became a sing-along favorite. The song was also used in many film soundtracks including the Tom Cruise movie Risky Business.
“Nebraska” – Nebraska (1982)
One of Springsteen’s most haunting songs, it is based on the story of teenage serial killer Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Carill Ann Fugate who murdered 11 people over eight days in 1958. Their intentions are reflected in the line, “I can’t say that I am sorry for the things we done, at least for a little while sir, me and her, we had us some fun.” The moody harmonica adds to the song’s impact.
“Glory Days” – Born In The USA (1984)
Though the Born In The USA album is known for its title track and “Dancing In The Dark,” this song became increasingly popular as the years rolled by. The simple reason is that it talked of getting older, nostalgia and the passage of time with lines like “Glory days well they’ll pass you by, glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye.” Steven Van Zandt’s guitaring and appearance in the official video are highlights.
“Lonesome Day” – The Rising (2002)
Springsteen was less prolific in the 1990s, releasing only three albums. The 2002 album The Rising, which came seven years after The Ghost Of Tom Joad, was written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The opening track ‘Lonesome Day’ sets the pace with its mid-tempo rock vibe and lines that talk of loneliness following the loss of one’s beloved. The lyrics “Let kingdom come, I’m going to find my way through this lonesome day” talk of fighting against the odds. The album’s title track and ‘Paradise’ are also first-rate.
“We Take Care Of Our Own” – Wrecking Ball (2012)
The song’s claim to fame is that it was used in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and Joe Biden’s victory speech. And though the refrain (“Wherever this flag is flown/ We take care of our own”) is optimistic, the song is often perceived as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the tendency of many Americans not to help each other. The piece is filled with guitar rock energy, though the use of a large string section adds a unique touch.
“Hello Sunshine – Western Stars (2019)
A mellow ballad, this song is about a person who has “fallen in love with lonely”. The melancholic fiddles, pedal steel guitar and chugging rhythm, give this song a country-rock feel, as Springsteen sings, “Had enough of heartbreak and pain, I had a little sweet spot for the rain, for the rain and skies of grey, hello sunshine, won’t you stay?” The album is inspired by American artistes Glenn Campbell and Burt Bacharach.
“House Of A Thousand Guitars” – Letter To You (2020)
One of the highlights of Springsteen’s latest release Letter To You, “House Of A Thousand Guitars” has been described by fans as an ‘instant classic,’ as the tune immediately hits you. The song is said to have used music and ‘a thousand guitars’ as metaphors to describe how people can come together to achieve a common goal. “So wake up and shake off your troubles my friend, we’ll go where the music never ends, from the stadiums and the small-time bars, we’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars,” sings Springsteen.
Springsteen’s songs are known for their intense lyrics, which talk of hope, day-to-day life, relationships, despair and even actual incidents. They are the kind that can leave listeners ecstatic and sad, or relaxed and reflective at the same time. Besides the songs listed above, numbers like “Jungleland,” “Racing In The Street.” “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” “I’m On Fire,” “Paradise,” “Land Of Hope And Glory,” “The Wayfarer” and “Western Stars” are examples of great songwriting. And though some take time to grow, the impact is long-lasting.