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Consensus Non-Consensus: Bruce Springsteen “The Wild, The Innocent, & The E-Street Shuffle”

In Consensus Non-Concensus I take a look at a lesser release by a great artist, and decide if that perception is justified, or if the album is worth a second look.

Bruce Springsteen has been the definition of Classic Rock royalty longer than most of us can remember. Any mention of his name instantly elicits thoughts of pure blue collar Americana. Factories, youthful flirtations, and the unfulfillable promise of manifest destiny are just a few of the images his catalog conjures. Further, unlike many of the canonized dinosaurs of his era, Springsteen has maintained a legitimate bond with the progressive politics of his music, and gone out of his way to promote up and coming musicians he likes.

While his bonafides are beyond reproach, many younger music fans are still quick to write off Springsteen as just another overrated hero of Corporate Classic Rock that has been clogging radio waves and family barbecues since the 1980’s. Even though Springsteen’s meat and potatoes classic rock transcends the genre (I hate most Blues Rock and even I can get on board with Adam Raised A Kane), skeptics would do well to revisit The Wild, The Innocent, And The E-Street Shuffle. They will be shocked to find that Springsteen was as adept at Funk and Jazz Fusion as he would become at defining our modern concept of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

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Wild & Innocent, released in 1973, was the last album Springsteen recorded with the original East Street line-up, most notably drummer Vinni “Mad Dog” Lopez, and it’s impossible to deny the authentic funk influence Springsteen absorbed. Nowhere is this influence more obvious than on the opening song, “E Street Shuffle.” Starting with a softly mixed horn ensemble, the song suddenly kicks off with a sharp guitar riff that gives way to a rollicking funk/soul groove. The Boss croons in a sly, playful voice. Unlike the deep, serious tone he would develop on later albums, Bruce sounds like he’s just having fun, and the live ad libbing in the background makes the song feel like it was recorded on a downtown corner in August. As the song comes to what seems to be the end, a talk box affected guitar jumps in, and the track kicks up a gear. If one were to hear just the outro, they might think they were hearing the end of an Earth Wind and Fire song, but that’s just where the Boss was at in ’73.

As the album progresses, it becomes apparent how different it is from anything else Bruce ever attempted. The 7 track, 43 minute run time is an obvious indicator, but sonically one can hear the heavy influence of “Moondance” era Van Morrison on songs like “Kitty’s Back” and “Incident On 57th Street.” While both songs are charming, they are held back by the indulgences of their era, and would both probably work better as truncated, four minute takes, but at seven plus minutes they are more than a little exhausting.

While the elongated run times hurt some songs (“New York Serenade” mostly works as a proto-Jungleland style closer, so we’ll give that one a pass), “Rosalita” earns every moment of it’s seven minutes and four seconds. A strong contender for the greatest song in Springsteen’s entire catalog, “Rosalita” is so full of joy and youthful energy that just two years later it would seem out of place on any subsequent albums. Playing the role of the bad boy trying to woo the titular “Rosy,” the autobiographical details about “Swamps of Jersey” and “record company advances” are what make this stand out song transcend to the level of early career defining statement. Also if the legend that the real Rosalita ran off on Bruce to marry a guy who owned a gas station is true, well, there’s a woman who holds a lot of regrets.

The Wild, The Innocent, & The E-Street Shuffle is hardly a perfect album. The longer songs are hit or miss, causing it to drag at points, and Bruce was still very much living in the shadow of his icons, not quite ready to unleash his real identity.  His next album was also Born To Run, as perfect a Rock album as has ever been released. One’s natural desire might be to gravitate there when introducing neophytes to The Boss’ classic works. While that may make logical sense, don’t sleep on Wild & Innocent. It may not be his greatest work, but it marks the only time Bruce ever intensely explored the deeper funk & jazz influences he would digest to help create his signature sound.

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