Bruce Springsteen is not big on subtlety. His songwriting is deliberate, and his bold emotions resolve any lyrical ambiguity. Proud and unapologetic in his music and politics, “The Boss” possesses a rare clarity of purpose.
For the most part, the new double album Live in New York City is a typical Springsteen album. Arena rock anthems, romantic ballads, unchecked optimism — it’s all there. In “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” he declares “I’m not bulls—ing here!” Yet, deep in this celebration of the obvious, Bruce has hidden a dusty jewel of unrealized brilliance.
Not until he belts out the chorus is it clear that the fifth track of the second disk is, in fact, “Born in the USA.” After two minutes of swampy acoustic blues licks intertwined with a resonant slide-guitar line of non-Western rhythms and intervals, Springsteen finally confirms your suspicions with his patriotic mantra. He even adopts the inflections of a Southern rock crooner for this curious declaration of pride.
On his 1984 album of the same name, “Born in the USA” serves a different purpose. This title track opener is a freight train, a wave of energy that carries the listener to the end of the line. Now, 16 years later, he overhauls this, his most recognizable tune, without warning or fanfare.
Granted, Springsteen isn’t exactly known for innovation, but he is certainly not afraid of change or controversy. In 1993, he rebuilt his fan base with the solemn soundtrack to “Philadelphia,” the first Hollywood film to tackle the topic of AIDS. During his two-night stand at Madison Square Garden last summer (the recording of which became Live in NYC), he debuted “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song about the 1999 NYPD shooting of an unarmed West African immigrant in the Bronx, despite protests from the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police outside the shows.
Perhaps the overhaul of “Born” reflects Springsteen’s broadening social consciousness, offering a modest revision of his previously narrow conception of the American dream as a medium-sized house in New Jersey suburbia, a wife, kids and 2.5 dogs. He still sings with pride, but the source of his pride is unclear. And maybe that’s just his point — being American entails more subtlety than a Bruce Springsteen song.
Critics and fans will quibble whether Live in NYC has the same chutzpah as Live 1975-1985. Don’t worry, the E Street Band is as tight as ever, and Springsteen plays enough of his hits to keep anyone satisfied. But what sets this album apart is the Boss’s understated deviation from his reliable formula.