You won’t find any fist-raising, arena-ready rock anthems on the below list of Underrated Bruce Springsteen: The Most Overlooked Song From Each LP.
None of these 19 tracks were singles and they aren’t among the Boss’ most frequently performed in concert. Instead, the focus is on other roles Springsteen has played out in his songs: the cinematic narrative storyteller, the introspective loner and the wide-eyed romantic. On a few occasions, he’s all three in the same song. All the studio albums are represented with the exception of 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a diverse collection of folk songs popularized by Pete Seeger. We’ve also excluded the archival compilations Tracks, The Promise and The Ties That Bind.
From: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)
On those rare occasions when Springsteen breaks out “For You” in concert, he’s more likely to perform it alone at the piano than with a full band. While the solo arrangement perhaps better underscores the narrator’s frustration with a fickle and perhaps mentally unstable woman, the version found on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., led by Springsteen’s jagged acoustic rhythm guitar, is nonetheless a highlight of his debut album.
“Incident on 57th Street”
From: The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
Springsteen has defined his second record, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, as having a split personality, with half the songs detailing life on the Jersey Shore and the other half comprised of his “romantic fantasies of New York City.” “Incident on 57th Street,” which opens the second side, is from the latter, a slice-of-life depiction of a pair of Latinx lovers – the hustling Spanish Johnny and the older Puerto Rican Jane – told with wide eyes and empathy, particularly in the coda when he brings his voice into fifth gear.
“Meeting Across the River”
From: Born to Run (1975)
On an album filled with rock anthems, the quieter “Meeting Across the River” stands out. Its jazzy, film noir vibe, complete with Randy Brecker’s trumpet and Richard Davis’ upright bass, allows the narrator to think he’s going to be a hero to his girlfriend after making a big score. But the reality – he’s so down on his luck that he needs to get a ride into the city and has to fake carrying a gun – is that he’s setting himself up for tragedy. As such, it dovetails perfectly into the violent urban landscape of “Jungleland.”
“Something in the Night”
From: Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Ushered in by Roy Bittan’s elegiac piano and Max Weinberg’s rumbling tom-toms, then followed by wordless howling by Springsteen, “Something in the Night” is all about disillusion. It’s hard to hear lyrics like “You’re born with nothing, and better off that way / Soon as you’ve got something, they send someone to try and take it away” without thinking it was inspired by Springsteen’s legal fight with former manager Mike Appel for control of his publishing in the wake of Born to Run‘s success.
From: The River (1980)
The ghostly track that closes out The River‘s third side, “Stolen Car” is a pivotal Springsteen song. With only two chords, Springsteen sings of a man looking to leave his past behind. Unlike some of his other attempts on a similar subject, there’s no hope or chance for redemption – just an expectation of getting caught and a fear “that in this darkness I will disappear.” The sparse, bleak sound, and the story, would help pave the way for Nebraska.
From: Nebraska (1982)
Where many of Springsteen’s early songs about familial conflict deal with father and son, “Highway Patrolman” tells of an honest man unsuccessfully trying to keep his younger brother out of trouble. It ends with a body count and a car chase between the brothers at the U.S.-Canada border. Sean Penn based his 1991 movie The Indian Runner on the story.
From: Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
Seven of the 12 songs on Born in the U.S.A. were Top 10 singles. Of the other five, “Downbound Train” stands out the most. As with so many Springsteen lyrics at the time, the personal and political intersect. In this case, a relationship can’t withstand an economic downturn. It all comes to a head near the end, when, like Johnny Cash inside Folsom Prison, a train whistle jolts the narrator back into reality. Also like Cash: He winds up a guest of the state.
From: Tunnel of Love (1987)
In the first 15 years of his career, Springsteen, like so many songwriters who came before him, often used cars as metaphors for freedom, escape and sexual potency. But vehicles also became a place for Springsteen to be alone with his darkest thoughts (see “Something in the Night” and “Stolen Car”). The last song on Tunnel of Love, “Valentine’s Day,” finds him returning home after a late-night drive, unsure of his future with the love of his life and scared of what could happen if she leaves him. It ends the great album, a song cycle about the emotional pitfalls of a relationship, on a powerful but ambiguous note.
From: Human Touch (1992)
Human Touch was an uneven collection of songs that wasn’t helped by the immediately dated production and use of session musicians instead of the E Street Band. “Real World” is one of its few highlights, with lyrics that reflect Springsteen’s domestic bliss with new wife Patti Scialfa and their son. Although the exuberance of this Human Touch recording, which features Sam Moore of soul greats Sam & Dave on background vocals, rises above the slick sound, a superior take was captured at a solo show in November 1990, where Springsteen debuted the song with just his piano.
From: Lucky Town (1992)
Released the same day as Human Touch, Lucky Town picks up where the autobiographical material on its companion LP left off. It’s a better and more rollicking album. “Living Proof” is an unabashed paean to wife Patti Scialfa: “You shot through my anger and rage / To show me my prison was just an open, open cage / There were no keys, no guards / Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars.”
From: The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
As on Nebraska, instrumentation takes a back seat to narrative storytelling on The Ghost of Tom Joad, with Springsteen setting most of the record around the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern California. “The Line” is one the most compelling songs – a tale of of a widowed border patrol officer who falls in love with a woman, then helps her, her child and her brother smuggle drugs into the country.
From: The Rising (2002)
Among the tales of post-9/11 heroism and loss on The Rising is the flip side. “Nothing Man” tells the story of a first responder who’s celebrated in his hometown for his action, but all he sees are his failures on that day. “You can call me Joe, buy me a drink and shake my hand / You want courage, I’ll show you courage you can understand / The pearl and silver resting on my night table / It’s just me Lord, I pray and I’m able,” he chillingly sings.
From: Devils & Dust (2005)
“The Hitter” was written during the Tom Joad era but remained unreleased until a decade later on Devils & Dust. Like Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront, the boxer whose voice Springsteen inhabits threw away his chance at becoming a boxing champion by fixing a fight. But instead of Terry Malloy’s “I coulda been a contender” catharsis, Springsteen’s narrator confesses his actions to his estranged mother, without asking for love or absolution.
From: Magic (2007)
Magic is Bruce Springsteen’s most politicized album; many of its songs are angry responses to President George W. Bush’s administration. The surging “Gypsy Biker” takes place as a soldier’s corpse is returned to his family; a friend talks about how the Iraq War has divided the country while loved ones take the deceased’s motorcycle out for one last ride in his honor.
“Kingdom of Days”
From: Working on a Dream (2009)
Because rock ‘n’ roll brings with it a promise of eternal youth, few songwriters approach the subject in middle age. Even fewer have done it better than Springsteen does on “Kingdom of Days,” the emotional centerpiece of the inconsistent Working on a Dream. Against a lush backdrop, he channels Roy Orbison as he sings of growing old with the one you love, where time is measured not in days and years, but in new wrinkles and gray hairs.
“We Are Alive”
From: Wrecking Ball (2012)
On a record filled with stories about people affected by the Great Recession, Wrecking Ball closes with three songs of hope: “Rocky Ground,” “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “We Are Alive.” The last track finds the narrator in a cemetery, where the voices of past protest movements – labor, civil rights and immigration– remind him that the spirit of their activism continues “to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
From: High Hopes (2014)
Even though “The Wall” wasn’t released until 2014’s High Hopes, the song’s origins go back to 1997, when Springsteen visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. There, he saw the name of Walter Cichon, a Jersey Shore musician who befriended Springsteen in his early days before he was shipped off to Vietnam and killed in action in 1968. Springsteen expertly contrasts the dog tags and wreaths amid the names etched in polished black stone with the men who make the decisions to put others in harm’s way.
From: Western Stars (2019)
As Western Stars comes to a close, the countrypolitan orchestral swoops found throughout the album are replaced by gentle acoustic fingerpicking, plaintive piano, muted pedal steel guitar and mallet-struck tom-toms. And the weather-beaten men who inhabit the record are replaced by a long-shuttered motel, outside of which Springsteen recalls an affair he once had there and drinks to its memory.
“I’ll See You in My Dreams”
From: Letter to You (2020)
Much of the material on Letter to You was inspired by the 2018 death of George Theiss, the singer of Springsteen’s first band, the Castiles. But it’s not hard to hear the record’s lovely final track, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and think Springsteen is also singing about late E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. As with Wrecking Ball‘s “We Are Alive,” their memories offer hope for the future.