Who's the Boss?

It's official: The Boss is dead. Not literally dead, like Elvis or FDR. Just conceptually dead, like the Christian Coalition or professional boxing.

No one will be more delighted by this development than Bruce Springsteen, who first tried to kill his Boss alter ego about ten years ago when he fired his band following 1987's Tunnel of Love tour. Tracks finishes the job. His second box set (the first is a live collection from 1986) is a four-disc compilation of B-sides, demos, and leftovers, precisely the kind of vault-cleaning that's usually reserved for musicians who've gone to rock-and-roll-heaven and have no new material in the offing.

In a way this is the case with Springsteen. For most of his career he's been the architect of two distinct musical personalities. First there's The Boss, the leader of an outrageously talented band, and the best white soul singer ever to be mistaken for a rock-and-roll hero; it was the persona that made anthemic rockers like "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark," the persona that earned him White House invitations and magazine covers. And then there's plain old Bruce, the meditative storyteller. Both have enriched American culture, but their artistic achievements are different. The Boss may have outsold plain old Bruce about a million albums to one, but the Springsteen who first emerged on 1982's Nebraska, who came fully into his own on Tunnel of Love, and who has released three mostly gorgeous, mostly ignored (commercially, at least) albums in the years since, is the more complex, challenging, and compelling artist.

Tracks ostensibly covers both of Springsteen's personas through the years, from the first demo he ever recorded for Columbia in 1972 to a song recorded three years ago for 1995's Greatest Hits collection. But one look at the cover photo on the box set tells you all you need to know about what Columbia is really selling. The sepia-tone shot from the Seventies shows a young, wiry, scruffy-looking Springsteen folded up on a basement sofa, staring pensively into the middle distance. There's no telling whether he's pondering his future or just watching M*A*S*H, but he's definitely lean, mean, and hungry. Inside, the track selection focuses heavily on Springsteen's early work with the E Street Band, which essentially makes Tracks another pricey load of nostalgia for The Generation That Never Tires of Its Own Past. And it's a particularly creepy nostalgia, not only because the artist in question is still alive and still making music of exceptional quality, but also because much of Springsteen's work with the E Street Band was itself an exercise in nostalgia. (Can you be nostalgic for nostalgia? Can you actually miss Sha-Na-Na?)

Not that there aren't pleasures, both gross and sublime, to be found among the tracks of Tracks. It's a wonder how a song as touching and well-spoken as "Shut Out the Light," which Springsteen frequently features in concert, never made it to an album until now. (It first surfaced on the flip side to the "Born In the U.S.A." single back in 1984.) It's great to see "Pink Cadillac," once available only as the B-side to "Dancing in the Dark," get a proper release as well; it's the best car song this side of "Mustang Sally." Other minor gems abound: the 1982 soul raveup "Lion's Den," the appropriately thundering "Thundercrack," recorded in 1973, and an acoustic version of "Born in the U.S.A." recorded during the Nebraska sessions that could never be mistaken for a Republican Party anthem.

But Tracks' overall impression is hardly an impression at all. It neither adds to nor diminishes Springsteen's status. It merely hints at a vast reservoir of OK-not-great material that's the natural byproduct of a restless, hard-working artist. Most everything here is as good as Springsteen's second-tier songs like "Darlington County" or "I'm a Rocker," but there's no undiscovered "Thunder Road" or "Atlantic City" to be found. Granted, the homoerotic subtext of songs like "Zero and Blind Terry," "Frankie," "My Lover Man," and "Brothers Under the Bridge" could make a nice Atlantic Monthly piece. Beyond that the only other insight Tracks offers that could be called revelatory is how astute Springsteen has been at culling his best cuts from an enormous amount of so-so material. Tracks has a sloppiness to it that Springsteen -- or The Boss -- wouldn't abide on studio records.

But if Tracks signals the end of The Boss, he deserves a proper eulogy. The young Springsteen was a masterful assimilator. From Dylan he learned how to overstuff lines, creating dynamic tension by playing lyrics against melody. From Roy Orbison he learned to explore the operatic possibilities of pop songs. From Otis Redding he learned everything about soul. Even lesser luminaries such as Gary "U.S." Bonds and Eddie Cochran can be heard in the early Springsteen sound. Though driven by artistic vision, all of this assimilation had a commercial benefit for Springsteen as well: By appropriating Fifties and Sixties pop sounds and giving a masculine feel to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production values, he was able to reach back and claim legions of fans among baby boomers slightly older than himself.

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