I heard somewhere or other that the most common word — aside from the banal ones, like “the” or “I” — in the Bruce Springsteen’s is “street.” It certainly could be true: “Streets of Fire,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” “Out In The Street,” “Incident on 57th Street,” and so on. There’s something particularly Springsteenian about the street, the space where all our personal dramas play out in public, where love and sadness and hope and anger all mix together into one opera played out on the turnpike. The street is the judge and the jury of all the lives of Springsteen’s blue-collar characters — but also their sole chance at escape from the monotony of their existences somewhere in the shingled houses of the untrafficked streets of Freehold or Allentown or Utica.
“The River,” Springsteen’s seminal exploration of the peculiar America he calls home, turned 35 a couple months ago. It sounds that old, too: Recorded live, it glistens with the sheen of a garage band playing at a dead-end bar, the sort that closed down years ago but that we still reminisce about once in awhile, an album full of Carter’s malaise and no hint of Reagan’s Californian optimism. With 19 tracks, it’s Springsteen’s longest album, and it ebbs and flows like the river of its title, its songs all little tributaries leading down one path or another.
Springsteen released “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection” late last year, a seven-disc compendium of outtakes from the sessions that led to “The River”. That type of release, for most artists, doesn’t tend to be worth the money — there’s a reason those tracks never saw the light of day. But it’s different for Springsteen, an artist whose prolific songwriting and obsessive quest for perfection meant that many of his best tracks were never released. “The Promise,” the 2010 collection of outtakes from the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sessions, contained songs that rivaled some of the tracks that eventually made it to commercial release.
The best of those songs comes, rightly, first on the new release. “Meet Me in the City” is as good a rocker as Springsteen ever wrote, injected with the same youthful energy that the 65-year-old singer still manages to exude at his concerts. The song begins with a classic organ riff, sounding like something from a John Philips Sousa march played at double-time, before Springsteen comes in, his voice gravelly and worn but still with some forlorn hope lying behind it. The lyrics are a mélange of images ripped from previous Springsteen songs: It’s the same American landscape as in “Badlands” and “Night,” of chrome-wheeled motorcycles beginning to show their rust and old highways whose cracks are simply ignored. None of it really means anything, except for the refrain — “Meet me in the city tonight” — which despite its apparent inanity seems imbued with some deep significance, like maybe the city’s gleaming lights represent a young couple’s one chance at redemption before the harshness of the outside world begin to creep in.
“Meet Me in the City” could well be the most Springsteen song Springsteen has ever written. In its imagery, its mad energy and its bare simplicity, it is American rock ’n’ roll music at its finest: open and accessible, affirmatively democratic music, rid of all aspirations to pretension. “Meet me in the city tonight,” Springsteen bellows as the song comes to a close: the most cryptic yet most obvious of lines, opaque enough to beckon us into the tantalizing unknown, but also stay within the world we know well and love dearly. Such is the particular genius of Bruce Springsteen, that artist who transforms our broken, heartless America into the most vivid of tapestries, full of color and vibrancy and life.