Some initial thoughts, which I expect to revisit at some point in the future.
• Among his fans, I suspect this will be the most polarizing album of Springsteen’s career. The people who could never come to grips with “Born in the USA” – a bonafide classic that has stood the test of time – are really going to have an problem with this one.
• I never thought I’d live to see the day when a Springsteen song (“Outlaw Pete”) was accused of being a rip-off of a Kiss song. But, since I’m not a Kiss fan and rarely hear a Kiss song outside of those on the radio, I have no idea what they’re talking about.
• In his review of Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” Robert Christgau wrote, “Bruce Springsteen, beware – this is what you've wrought, and it could happen to you.” I have to confess that quote came to mind upon my first listen to “Queen of the Supermarket.” After a couple of listens, I’m feeling better about the song, but not the background vocal during the last verses – which absolutely smacks of Meat Loaf-type hokum.
• There are at least three songs that, upon initial listens, are candidates to become classics: the title tune, “My Lucky Day,” and “The Last Carnival.”
• OK, it must be dealt with – “Surprise, Surprise” may be catchy and all, but so was “Run, Joey, Run.” It may indeed surprise me at some point and work its way into my brain like the termite art that Manny Farber wrote about all those years ago, but what I know right now is that Son #2 gleefully made fun of it when he first heard it, and continued in that vein this morning. And I can’t really answer him, because right now it sounds like the least substantial song he’s ever recorded.
Is this a great album? Clearly not, at least in comparison to classics like “Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and “Born in the USA.” But should it be held to that standard? That makes the conversation more interesting. Based on what he’s said about the album, this is the first time Bruce decided to make an album on a whim, just taking the energy from a tour and throwing down some songs without a lot of forethought as to themes, lyrical or musical. Personally, I think that’s great. It’s a challenge to himself, and it’s a challenge to the band, but it’s also a challenge to a group of fans whose expectations sometimes outstrip the ability of Bruce to meet them.
So I’m not surprised that the critical reaction is all over the map. You’ve got everything from the 5-star review in Rolling Stone, to Ann Powers’ slam in the L.A. Times, to the predictable “going to enter a few catch phrases in my trusty “Rip Springsteen a New One” computer program and see what comes out” piece from Jim DeRogatis in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Who knows? Maybe this time, everyone is right.