Bruce Springsteen has said that his album Wrecking Ball is “as direct a record as I’ve ever made.” But with touches of hip-hop and electronic music, the economic-meltdown-minded album is shaping up to be one of the Boss’ edgier, more experimental releases. Even though Springsteen is an iconic meat-and-potatoes rock’n’roller, his back catalog is studded with songs that skew more alt than trad in attitude.
Here are the best of those — call it a Bosswave primer:
1. “IF I WAS THE PRIEST”
Not found on any official Springsteen album, “If I Was the Priest” was recorded in 1972, the year before Springsteen’s debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. appeared. The song is as lyrically surreal and religiously conflicted as Springsteen ever was, or would be. Over a bluesy piano, the young songwriter spins a strange tale in which Jesus is a sheriff, the singer is a priest, and Mary runs a saloon. She’s also a junkie, a boozer, and a prostitute! The melody and image-stuffed lyrics are Dylanesque, but touched by the Velvets’ worldview.
2. “57 CHANNELS (AND NOTHIN’ ON)”
Found on 1992’s Human Touch, which along with its concurrently released Lucky Town constitute two very transitional Springsteen albums, this anti-boob-tube slow-burner (and its totally Zoo TV video) also contains one of his most self-lacerating lyrics. Accompanied by skeletal synth chords and wormy bass, Springsteen sings about himself as a bored millionaire, shooting out his own television screen. And he pronounces “bourgeois” awesomely!
3. “STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA”
From the soundtrack to Philadelphia, this song about the AIDS crisis rightly won Springsteen an Oscar for Best Original Song. For a chart hit and an award-winner it’s remarkably spare — just a simple drum loop, some wispy synth, and Springsteen’s solemn vocal. How many other megastars could sound so believably broken? (Neil Young’s “Philadelphia”, from the same film, is absolutely, devastatingly, beautiful.)
4. “STATE TROOPER”
Springsteen has cited 1982’s Nebraska as perhaps being Wrecking Ball‘s closest precedent. “State Trooper” is that gaunt, spooky earlier album’s most hair-raising track. Creeping acoustic guitar, a jittery narrator with a mind full of talk-radio bile, distant, echoed howls — you’re asking for restless sleep if you listen to this one alone before bed.
5. “ADAM RAISED A CAIN”
When Bruce gets mad, look out. From 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, “Adam Raised a Cain” is a pissed-off stomper about parent problems. The guitar screams, there’s a weird non-verbal grunting breakdown, and the E Street Band lurch like a movie monster. It’s angry as punk and loud as hell.
6. “AMERICAN SKIN (41 SHOTS)”
Bruce is one of America’s most revered rockers, but he’s not afraid of controversy. Inspired by the 1999 New York City police shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo, the surging, tense “American Skin (41 Shots),” which features a squalling, abstract guitar solo, was met with scattered boos when Springsteen performed it in Manhattan in 2000.
7. “WORLDS APART”
“Worlds Apart” does not sound like rock music. From Springsteen’s 2002 comeback album, The Rising, this song starts with muted Sufi vocal loops and a drum machine beat, layers in processed guitar, and then organically adds bluesy harmonica, hurdy-gurdy strains, and Bruce’s Arabic-scale melody until it arrives at a unified, cross-cultural whole.
8. “DREAM BABY DREAM”
Originally recorded by experimental, scarifying New York City synth-abilly duo Suicide, “Dream Baby Dream” was often performed solo by Springsteen, singing and coaxing otherworldly wheezes from a pump organ, on the stripped-down tour in support of 2005’s Devils & Dust. He got wiggy with the song, too, playing tag with the keyboard’s ethereal sound and his own hazy, heavily-reverbed vocals. Trippy and beautiful.
9. “BECAUSE THE NIGHT”
“Because the Night” was a Springsteen-Patti Smith co-write, and the latter scored a hit single with it in 1978, but Bruce often played it live during the same era, turning into a savage new wave-hard rock shredfest.
10. “A NIGHT WITH THE JERSEY DEVIL”
Bruce goes psychoblooze. “A Night With the Jersey Devil” was a special Halloween release back in 2008 and it still sounds haunted, as Springsteen goes into crazy preacher mode, screaming into a distorted mic as a heavy kick drum beat and barbed-wire harmonica rips through the mix. Extremely reminiscent of latter-day Tom Waits.
The dry, palm-muted guitar and watery synth opening to this Jimmy Cliff cover could almost pass for chillwave. The prison-break chorus though, is decidedly more aggro.
12. “I’M ON FIRE”
Such a weird assemblage: metronomic drum-machine beat, plinky guitar arpeggios, softly whining synth chords, and a ruefully sung lyric about a stalker. A lot of contemporary bedroom oddballs would be hard-pressed to come up with something so strangely simple and eerily perfect.
13. “BORN IN THE U.S.A.” (DEMO VERSION)
The polar opposite of its final cannon-crack version, the demo of “Born In the U.S.A.” sounds like the fatalistic surrender of a man only half-alive. That rickety boneyard guitar is the perfect busted accompaniment, and a reminder that something edgy and weird lives in the heart of even Bruce’s biggest hits.