Bruce Springsteen, ‘American Beauty’ – EP Review
New music from Bruce Springsteen should be a cause for near-universal celebration, and yet with the Boss’ own definition of “new” becoming more malleable with each release, there’s a bit of skepticism that starts to creep in.
Take ‘American Beauty,’ the four-track EP that hit stores on vinyl for Record Store Day 2014 and is now available digitally from iTunes and Amazon. It’s new to us, but the songs come from the same somewhat mysterious vintage as the tracks from January’s full-length album ‘High Hopes.’ One song from ‘Beauty’ is clearly identified as a leftover from the ‘Magic’ sessions in 2007; the other three feature work from producer Ron Aniello and are from more recent projects. All four of them were considered for ‘Hopes,’ which means that rather than being designed for a specific purpose, they were pulled from a mixed bag of tunes that Springsteen is always tinkering with.
That means these songs are leftovers from the leftovers, and they’re best appreciated in that context. Those looking for a revelatory new statement about the nature of human existence in these four songs will be sorely disappointed. But they’re not without their charms.
The title cut takes the melody from ‘Frankie Fell In Love’ (one of the highlights of ‘High Hopes’) and grafts new lyrics onto it, a classic Springsteen “draft song” (think of it as the reverse of the way ‘Mary Lou’ from ‘Tracks’ evolved into the B-side ‘Be True’ over just a few months in 1979). ‘Hurry Up Sundown’ feels like a throwaway, but in a good way; full of distorted guitar and vocals, it’s a windows-down early summer song, with all the depth and meaning (or lack thereof) that implies. ‘Mary Mary’ is a gentle love song with a pulse, a sweet set of lyrics set against strings and an insistent acoustic guitar.
It’s the final cut, ‘Hey Blue Eyes,’ that is the standout. “In this house, we’ve abandoned history,” Springsteen sings, gentle but insistent. With a frightening hush, he unfurls lyrics that dive deep into the black undertow of American ambition. In notes posted online, Springsteen reveals the song was written during the Bush presidency and reflect “the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison.” With this song, Springsteen drags each of us down into some of humanty’s darkest impulses, leaning over that thin invisible line between lust and hate that lurks within us all.
‘Hey Blue Eyes’ could have been on 2007’s ‘Magic.’ One might argue it should have been. Otherwise, ‘American Beauty’ is a bonus package for the die-hard fan, with some decent tunes that fall squarely in the B-sides/outtakes category. It’s a welcome addition to Springsteen’s catalog, if not an essential one.