American Beauty, by Bruce Springsteen


Released April 19, 2014

14 min, 44 sec

Man, this EP sucks.

That’s frustrating on a number of levels. I love Bruce Springsteen – the man is an American musical hero, his career is beyond iconic, and his music resonates with me on a deeply personal level. As you might expect given this, there’s going to be a ton of Springsteen on this blog. Because of that, it’s annoying to me that I have to start this blog’s coverage of Springsteen by shitting on this EP.

Honestly, it deserves nothing more than that. In 2014, Springsteen released High Hopes, an album that he wants you to think isn’t a B-sides album when it, very clearly, is. Scraping together rejected pieces stemming primarily from the Brendan O’Brien era of 2002 through 2009, the album also has a few newly recorded covers dropped into it, reinforcing the fact that this album is an excuse to tour again, and a vehicle for, at best, two or three real gems in the Springsteen catalogue. Tracks II, this is not.

American Beauty is, if you can believe it, a B-sides EP to this B-sides album. That right there is a degree of separation too far removed from what Springsteen considered acceptable for his canon, and so one starts to wonder why this EP exists at all, aside from an easy tie-in to Record Store Day 2014.

Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly why it exists. Thanks, Record Store Day.

The EP’s missteps begin right off the bat, with “American Beauty” and its horrendous vocal work from Springsteen. He tries to do that country voice where your voice cracks every fifth word, and it’s about as tolerable here as it is in country music. A bad song to take the title of a release from, really.

“Mary Mary” rectifies this by not being horrible, and it’s actually a pleasant track to listen to. Its problem is that it’s very, very disposable – at home on Working on a Dream, and that’s not a compliment.

“Hurry Up Sundown” is similarly forgettable – a working man’s track coming from a man that made his career on them, most of them much better than this one. I like the rhythm, and I’m always a fan of multi-layered backing vocals that Springsteen enjoys using, but the track doesn’t do very much to stand out. This one, at least, sounds more like a track from Magic, which is a much better album than Working on a Dream. There’s also a nice falsetto line towards the end of the track, which Springsteen doesn’t break out all that often.

“Hey Blue Eyes” is the one standout, and, to be honest, I tolerate the existence of American Beauty solely on the merits of this track. Slow and quiet, Springsteen turns in a gorgeous vocal line, at once catchy and conveying a feeling of sadness. The track’s subject matter recalls 2012’s Wrecking Ball and all of its topical rage against the injustices committed by the American political and economic systems, while also harkening back to the lamentations of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Really, the song has a depth and beauty to it that the rest of the EP sorely lacks, and this is the one track that I would have liked to have on High Hopes, or, better yet, one of Springsteen’s 2000s-era albums. Maybe Magic.

What we’ve got here, overall, is a throwaway EP, spun out of a less-than-throwaway album. This is something that happens with artists that are very, very late in their careers – Springsteen, at least, has done a phenomenal job of keeping himself culturally relevant beyond being a nostalgia act, though the High Hopes leg of his 2012-2014 world tour came dangerously close to that, as electrifying and transcendent as his concerts tend to be. You’ll get duds like this one sometimes. Other times, you’ll get albums like Wrecking Ball, shockingly powerful in its relevancy and refusal to stick to what most people expect from a Springsteen album.

We’ll dive very, very deep into Springsteen’s catalogue as the blog rolls on. I, in particular, am greatly invested in the latter-day Springsteen introduced in the wake of 9/11, because this is the Springsteen that I came to know and love as a fan in 2010. Bruce Springsteen is an artist that countless individuals have written about, and I know that I’m contributing to an endless sea of trash in that regard, but I believe that there’s still plenty to say about The Boss.

I stuck with a straight album review here, for the most part, because I want to save the more high-concept posts regarding Springsteen for albums that don’t suck. Believe me when I tell you that I’ve got a lot to say.

A couple of observations about the cover art:

– American Beauty is one of, at most, four Springsteen releases to not actually feature his face on the cover.  Instead, it features two iconic Springsteen themes – women and cars.

– Cars have made their way on to covers several times – most notably Nebraska, but also Magic Tour Highlights and The Promise.

– At least this cover isn’t as ugly as the cover for Working on a Dream.  I’m going to have a field day with that album (in, like, two years).


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