Bruce Springsteen's new album, Parking Free, due out soon, returns the Jersey rock legend full circle to his roots and captures the true spirit of the man as husband, father, musician, and poet. The clear influence is not the folksy Dylanesque verbosity of Springsteen's first album, 1973's Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., but rather the driving R&B that fueled his strongest works, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Parking Free does not entirely abandon the stripped-down acoustic approach favored on the revealing masterworks Nebraska and Tunnel of Love, and the combination of funky rockers and plaintive ballads places the new effort among the Boss's best. Here's a song-by-song look, in order, at the new record:
"Parallel on the Boardwalk"
A summertime shouter featuring several of Springsteen's musical cronies in guest roles. It's hot enough to melt the ice cream right out of your hands, and the cone may also catch fire.
"Need a New Pair of Shoes"
Revelatory and passionate, Bruce bares his soul over his divorce and bares his teeth at the hounds of the fourth estate. Includes a nifty guitar framework and backing by the Memphis Horns.
"True Steel Man"
An engrossing tale about how you might not always want what you get. The arrangement, which relies heavily on layered acoustic guitars, supports the theme by creating an atmosphere of bleak despair.
Explosive, headlong rocker with deft guitar solo by Little Steven. "So we watched a double feature/'Bout an heiress and a preacher/And then we set the place on fire." Burn, baby, burn.
"She Went to Texas"
With a musical texture that reflects the desolate Southwest, and a dense, almost intimidating poetry, this ballad displays Springsteen's growth as a lyricist, as a poet. Backing harmonies (by Patti Scialfa) are heartbreaking.
Compact when it needs to be, expansive when it doesn't, the groove on this song is deep enough to swallow a Thunderbird. We'll probably pay for our hyperbole after Springsteen's next groundbreaking album, but this may be the best thing the Boss has ever recorded.
Another blazing R&B-fueled rocker. Partly a return to songs like "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Crush on You," partly a safari into new, even wilder territory, this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Boss can still tear it up.
"Hell Drives a Lincoln"
A showcase for the horn section and guest Steve Cropper, this punchy party song draws heavily on the old Stax sound, with shades of "Sherry Darling."
"Hiding from the Dark"
It sounds as if Springsteen's been waiting his whole life to grow old enough so that no one will object when he wraps his pipes around a sparse, semisweet ballad. Everybody has a hungry heart, but not everybody can give you goose bumps just by singing about it.
If The River dealt with marriage, this album, and this song in particular, does the same for birth and rebirth. Cinematic in scope, it's informed by sources as diverse as Hank Williams, John Steinbeck, and Bruce's idol Woody Guthrie.
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Baffling lyrically ("Ten-inch wings/Are the price of admission/And her dangerous curves/Are a chronic condition/Right now"), but worthwhile just for the experience of hearing Springsteen duet with himself.
A lovely ballad that sets the decay of an American city against the birth of a new child. With Scialfa's delicate vocals intertwining with his own, Springsteen tackles the difficult themes of birth, aging, and procreation with stately grace.
All in all, these twelve songs mark the return of a superstar to his rightful place in the pantheon. And for that, we must be thankful.