This is part of my 2011 wrap-up series, A Few of My Favorite Things, in which I discuss what I enjoyed the past year, regardless of when it was released.
Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75
In his retrospective of The Arctic Monkeys’ first three albums, Grant cites a theory about artists’ third albums.
It’s not a perfect rule, but it’s interesting to think about bands’ trajectories after their first three albums, especially artists whose legacies we more or less already know.
Grant listed Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s third album, as an example of a standout third effort. I’d go one step further and call it the ultimate third album. That’s not to say it’s the best third album of all time — Rolling Stone lists it as the second best behind London Calling — but it epitomizes and perfects everything that’s special about third albums in an artist’s creative trajectory.
Let’s look at Bruce’s first three albums and the career arc they set up:
- Greetings from Asbury Park – Bruce sounds like a Dylan knockoff, but shows off his prodigious aptitude for romantic poetry and profound rock. He concerns himself with adolescent passion.
- The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle – A magnificent sequel. Suddenly, he’s less of a troubadour and more of a groundbreaking, jazzy bandleader. He sentimentalizes youthful idealism as he bids it adieu. His sonic palette verges on sprawling.
- Born to Run – Bruce leaves behind his youth and its over-optimistic ideals. But instead of abandoning romance, he recaptures it with a “last-chance power drive” — a willful exultation of passion. The music matches the theme, carefully constructed and monumental.
It’s almost too perfect a three-album arc. Where does he go from there? As it turned out, he had plenty left. Maybe that’s the point of third albums; they demonstrate an artist’s proclivity for developing craft and building something meaningful over time.
And so we find Springsteen at this crux for his first trip concert trip to Europe. Springsteen is very likely the most notable and influential American artist of the post-Beatles era, but he was greeted with skepticism in England, the hotbed of rock greatness.
It’s difficult to call this time frame Springsteen’s “best era” as he’s re-peaked many times since. But, for my money, Springsteen was never better than the he was at the release of Born to Run. He would later plumb some mighty dark, mighty American depths. But never truer, purer, better. Never as melodic or romantic or intoxicating.
Hammersmith Odeon, London ‘75 records Bruce’s first ever concert in Europe, if I’m not mistaken. It’s hard to imagine anyone, even the most skeptical listener, leaving that concert hall with any doubt that Bruce Springsteen had earned his hype.
Bruce sounds irrepressible on every track. He captures the spirit of every song and delivers it in an exciting package that sometimes closely resembles the studio version, sometimes doesn’t. Almost every song is improved over its studio original. The complete absence of a lull in quality is very impressive.
There’s music that I like, but that I understand if people don’t get. I think Lady Gaga’s first two albums are genius. I think Be Here Now is damn close to five stars. I think the Grease soundtrack is a masterpiece.
You could present solid reasoning and convince me out of any of those assertions. And I wouldn’t begrudge you for it. All of those claims are disputable. You might not get that music, just like I don’t really get Kashmir by Led Zeppelin or Sympathy for the Devil.
But Hammersmith Odeon, London ‘75, anything less than great? I wouldn’t buy it. I can’t think of anyone I know who would dislike this album. It’s the single most concise, most accessible account to Bruce’s ability to transcend genre and entertainment into art. If you don’t understand Bruce’s hype after this album, chances are you won’t ever.
If nothing else, the live album earns this spot because of the stripped down rendition of “For You.” The new arrangement transforms the song into a heartbreaking climax of love. It’s a top 100 track for me, eight and a half minutes of perfection.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t call the entire album “perfection.” It’s too sprawing and complex to have smooth edges. Thirteen minute jams, like “E-Street Shuffle” here, are, by their very nature, imperfect. But if not perfect, every inch of Hammersmith Odeon, London ‘75 is indispensable and dazzling.
Previously: #10 Adventureland
Up next: An epic conclusion, an end of an era