Maybe you’re like me and have tuned Bruce Springsteen out these last few records. A couple songs here and there have grabbed your ear (list at the bottom of the post), but by and large, when you want a Springsteen fix, you don’t reach for anything he’s put out in the past decade. If you’re being honest, you might even admit that Tracks is your favorite thing he’s been involved with since the 80s. You miss the character studies, the wordplay, the exuberance. You liked it better when the politics were less didactic and more clearly rooted in autobiography. You like your sermons with a bit more good news, or at least dressed up in more ambitious melodies. But you feel conflicted – have you become one of the irritating critics in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, always urging Woody to make a film more like his “early, funny ones”? So, just like you did with those Star Wars prequels, you go back and take another listen to Magic or Working on a Dream, hoping you’ll find that your initial impression was torpedoed by the weight of expectation and transference. But then Bruce goes ahead and reissues Darkness on the Edge of Town (with 20 or so unreleased songs) and the distance traveled, not just in style but tone and quality, is just too striking to ignore.

If you remotely fit the description, then The New Yorker’s recent profile of The Boss may reclaim your respect, if not your interest. The piece is long and deservedly so, going where the disappointing recent Rolling Stone interview with Jon Steward refused to, and as such, it’s a must-read for anyone who’s even flirted with liking the man’s music. Springsteen’s candor about a number of our favorite subjects is surprising, such as the relationship between self-loathing and achievement, Father wounds and workaholism, the human quest for transcendence and transformation (AKA Redemption), the spiritual roots of depression and self-medication and creativity, the abreactive power of good art, rock n roll as religion. The list goes on. It would appear that while his muse may have become a bit compromised, his wisdom and insight are very much intact. Which begs the question: when we listen to your recent music, Bruce, is that you… or just a brilliant disguise?

Springsteen came to glory in the age of Letterman, but he is anti-ironical… He is all about flagrant exertion… “I want an extreme experience,” he says. He wants his audience to leave the arena, as he commands them, “with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated!” So the display of exuberance is critical. “For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself,” he says. “Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it’s really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time.”…

After all these years onstage, he can stand back from his performances with an analytic remove. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he told me. “But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”…

In biographies and clippings, [Bruce’s father] Doug Springsteen is described with adjectives like “taciturn” and “disappointed.” In fact, he seems to have been bipolar, and he was capable of terrible rages, often aimed at his son. Doctors prescribed drugs for his illness, but Doug didn’t always take them. The mediator in the house, the source of optimism and survival, and the steadiest earner, was Bruce’s mother, Adele, who worked as a legal secretary. Still, Bruce was deeply affected by his father’s paralyzing depressions, and worried that he would not escape the thread of mental instability that ran through his family. That fear, he says, is why he never did drugs…

The past, though, is anything but past. “My parents’ struggles, it’s the subject of my life,” Springsteen told me at rehearsal. “It’s the thing that eats at me and always will. My life took a very different course, but my life is an anomaly. Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.” Gesturing toward the band onstage, he said, “We’re repairmen—repairmen with a toolbox. If I repair a little of myself, I’ll repair a little of you. That’s the job.”…

“T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s just fathers and sons, and you’re out there proving something to somebody in the most intense way possible. It’s, like, ‘Hey, I was worth a little more attention than I got! You blew that one, big guy!’ ”…

Springsteen was also experiencing intervals of depression that were far more serious than the occasional guilt trip about being “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” as he sings in “Better Days.” A cloud of crisis hovered as Springsteen was finishing his acoustic masterpiece “Nebraska,” in 1982. He drove from the East Coast to California and then drove straight back. “He was feeling suicidal,” Springsteen’s friend and biographer Dave Marsh said. “The depression wasn’t shocking, per se. He was on a rocket ride, from nothing to something, and now you are getting your ass kissed day and night. You might start to have some inner conflicts about your real self-worth.”

Springsteen began questioning why his relationships were a series of drive-bys. And he could not let go of the past, either—a sense that he had inherited his father’s depressive self-isolation. For years, he would drive at night past his parents’ old house in Freehold, sometimes three or four times a week. In 1982, he started seeing a psychotherapist. At a concert years later, Springsteen introduced his song “My Father’s House” by recalling what the therapist had told him about those nighttime trips to Freehold: “He said, ‘What you’re doing is that something bad happened, and you’re going back, thinking that you can make it right again. Something went wrong, and you keep going back to see if you can fix it or somehow make it right.’ And I sat there and I said, ‘That is what I’m doing.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t.’ ”…

Extreme wealth may have satisfied every pink-Cadillac dream, but it did little to chase off the black dog. Springsteen was playing concerts that went nearly four hours, driven, he has said, by “pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred.” He played that long not just to thrill the audience but also to burn himself out. Onstage, he held real life at bay.

“My issues weren’t as obvious as drugs,” Springsteen said. “Mine were different, they were quieter—just as problematic, but quieter. With all artists, because of the undertow of history and self-loathing, there is a tremendous push toward self-obliteration that occurs onstage. It’s both things: there’s a tremendous finding of the self while also an abandonment of the self at the same time. You are free of yourself for those hours; all the voices in your head are gone. Just gone. There’s no room for them. There’s one voice, the voice you’re speaking in.”…

[Springsteen’s wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa:] “When you are that serious and that creative, and non-trusting on an intimate level, and your art has given you so much, your ability to create something becomes your medicine,” she said. “It’s the only thing that’s given you that stability, that joy, that self-esteem. And so you are, like, ‘This part of me no one is going to touch.’ When you’re young, that works, because it gets you from A to B. When you get older, when you are trying to have a family and children, it doesn’t work. I think that some artists can be prone to protecting the well that they fetched their inspiration from so well that they are actually protecting malignant parts of themselves, too. You begin to see that something is broken. It’s not just a matter of being the mythological lone wolf; something is broken…”

As Springsteen sees it, the creative talent has always been nurtured by the darker currents of his psyche, and wealth is no guarantee of bliss. “I’m thirty years in analysis!” he said. “Look, you cannot underestimate the fine power of self-loathing in all of this. You think, I don’t like anything I’m seeing, I don’t like anything I’m doing, but I need to change myself, I need to transform myself. I do not know a single artist who does not run on that fuel. If you are extremely pleased with yourself, nobody would be fucking doing it! Brando would not have acted. Dylan wouldn’t have written ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ James Brown wouldn’t have gone ‘Unh!’ He wouldn’t have searched that one-beat down that was so hard. That’s a motivation, that element of ‘I need to remake myself, my town, my audience’—the desire for renewal.”

“Everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Jake [Clemons, Clarence Clemons’ nephew] said. “A Springsteen show is a lot of things, and it’s partly a religious experience. Maybe he comes from the line of David, a shepherd boy who could play beautiful music, so that the crazy become less crazy and Saul the king finally chills out. Religion is a system of rules and order and expectations, and it unites people in a purpose. There really is a component of Bruce that is supernatural. Bruce is Moses! He led the people out of the land of disco!”

Eight Great Springsteen Tracks from the Last Decade

  1. The Wrestler
  2. You’ll Be Coming Down
  3. My City of Ruins
  4. Jesus Was an Only Son
  5. Your Own Worst Enemy
  6. This Life
  7. Tomorrow Never Knows
  8. O Mary Don’t You Weep