Even now, there exist two Bruce Springsteens: the arena-rock populist and the folk-obsessed troubadour. The former is the hero who sold 15 million copies of Born in the U.S.A.; he's still "The Boss" to the fist-pumping faithful who anxiously await the long-rumored E Street Band reunion and know every word to those saxed-up, sexed-up anthems about hot-rod angels and blue-collar Romeos. But the other Springsteen is Woody Guthrie in a millionaire's ripped jeans, a poet who mumbles his desperate little songs without the best bar band in the world to prop him up. It's hard to like one Springsteen and still adore the other: Either Nebraska or Born in the U.S.A. is your favorite record, but you can't have it both ways.
Just listen to the acoustic version of "Born in the U.S.A." that appears on disc two of Tracks. Recording the song in 1982, Springsteen sprints through it, spitting out the words as though he can barely stand their taste. If that version had appeared on Nebraska as he originally intended, it might well have reshaped his entire career: It wouldn't have been a hit, because protest songs never are. It's that sort of dichotomy that makes this four-disc, 66-song vault-cleaner so exhilarating and at the same time so frustrating: There are at least two dozen songs on here as good as anything the man has ever released (among them "Lucky Man," "This Hard Land," and the outtakes from Tunnel of Love), and even more that deserved to end up on the cutting-room floor (cf. the self-indulgent "TV Movie," a slightly different version of "Pink Cadillac," and a good deal of disc four). And most every single highlight features Springsteen backed by either the sparest of accompaniment or none at all. Like the man said on "Valentine's Day" from Tunnel of Love, "They say he who travels fastest travels alone."
During this four-plus-hour trek through a junkyard littered with brilliant gems and disposable wrecks, you're reminded of how he used to be wordier than a dictionary (from 1972's "Growin' Up": "I stood stonelike at midnight in my masquerade") and how many of his songs sound the same (overwrought vocals, promised-land lyrics, Clarence Clemons' grating sax). Baby, sometimes he was born to run in place. But you're also reminded of how brilliantly he once rendered the details and how empathic a songwriter he remains: The just-recorded "Gave It a Name," a bare-bones track based on the novel Paris Trout, says everything about spousal abuse without uttering much at all. Odd how the most recent track on a box full of old leftovers is also one of the best. Hope he noticed.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.