Who's the Boss?

It's official. "The Boss" is dead. Not literally dead, like Elvis or FDR. Just conceptually dead, like the Christian Coalition, or professional boxing.

No one will be more delighted by this development than Bruce Springsteen, who first tried to kill his "Boss" alter ego a dozen years ago, when he fired his band and released a box set of live recordings with the tombstone title of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live, 1975-1985. Tracks finishes the job. His second box set is a four-disc compilation of B-sides, demos, and leftovers, precisely the kind of vault-cleaning that's normally reserved for musicians who've gone to rock 'n' roll heaven and have no new material in the offing.

In a way, this is the case with Springsteen. For most of his career, he's been the architect of two distinct musical personalities. There's "The Boss," the leader of an outrageously talented band, and the best white soul singer ever to be mistaken for a rock 'n' roll hero; it was the persona that made anthemic rockers like "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark," the persona that got him White House invitations and magazine covers. And then there's plain old Bruce, the meditative storyteller. Both have enriched American culture, but their artistic achievements are different. "The Boss" may have outsold plain old Bruce about a million albums to one, but the Springsteen who first emerged on 1982's Nebraska, who came fully into his own on 1987's Tunnel of Love, and who has released three mostly gorgeous, mostly ignored albums since, is the more complex, challenging, and compelling artist.

Tracks ostensibly covers both of Springsteen's personas through the years, from the first demo he ever recorded for Columbia in 1972 to a song recorded three years ago for 1995's Greatest Hits collection. But one look at the cover photo on the box set tells you all you need to know about what Columbia is really selling. It's a sepia-toned shot from the '70s of a young, wiry, scruffy-looking Springsteen, folded up on a basement sofa and staring pensively into the middle distance. There's no telling whether he's pondering his future or just watching M*A*S*H, but he's definitely lean, mean, and hungry. Inside, the track selection focuses heavily on Springsteen's early work with the E Street Band. Which essentially makes Tracks another pricey load of nostalgia for The Generation That Never Tires of Its Own Past. And it's a particularly creepy nostalgia, not only because the artist in question is still alive and still making art of exceptional quality, but also because much of Springsteen's work with the E Street Band was itself an exercise in nostalgia. (Can you be nostalgic for nostalgia? Can you miss Sha-Na-Na?)

Not that there aren't pleasures, both gross and sublime, to be found among the tracks of Tracks. It's a wonder how a song as touching and well-spoken as "Shut Out the Light," which Springsteen frequently features in concert, never saw an official release until now. It's great to see "Pink Cadillac," once available only as the B-side to "Dancing in the Dark," get a proper release as well; it's the best car song this side of "Mustang Sally." Other minor gems abound: the 1982 soul rave-up "Lion's Den," the appropriately thundering "Thundercrack" recorded in 1973, and a Nebraska-sounding, acoustic "Born in the U.S.A." that could never be mistaken for a Republican Party anthem.

But Tracks' overall impression is hardly any impression at all. It neither adds to nor diminishes Springsteen's status. It merely hints at a vast reservoir of OK-not-great material that's the natural byproduct of a restless, hard-working artist. Most everything here is as good as Springsteen's second-tier songs like "Darlington County" or "I'm a Rocker," but there's no undiscovered "Thunder Road" or "Atlantic City" to be found. Granted, the homoerotic subtext of songs like "Zero and Blind Terry," "Frankie," "My Lover Man," and "Brothers Under the Bridges" could make a nice Atlantic Monthly piece. Beyond that, the only other insight Tracks offers that could be called revelatory is how astute Springsteen has been at culling his best cuts from an enormous amount of so-so material. Tracks has a sloppiness to it that Springsteen -- or "The Boss" -- wouldn't abide on his studio records.

But if Tracks signals the end of "The Boss," he deserves a proper eulogy. The young Springsteen was a masterful assimilator. From Dylan he learned how to overstuff lines, creating dynamic tension by playing lyrics against melody. From Roy Orbison he learned to explore the operatic possibilities of pop songs. From Otis Redding he learned everything about soul. Even lesser luminaries such as Gary U.S. Bonds and Eddie Cochran can be heard in the early Springsteen sound. Though driven by artistic vision, all of this assimilation had a commercial benefit for Springsteen as well: By appropriating '50s and '60s pop sounds and giving a masculine feel to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production values, he was able to reach back and claim legions of fans among baby boomers slightly older than himself.

But "The Boss" 's contributions to American music go beyond particular albums or singles. His work ethic, humility, and sense of humor, especially in concert, destroyed the '60s conception of singer/songwriters as stuck-up, drug-addled misanthropes. Springsteen not only respected his audiences, he openly adored them, which made it quite impossible to take mopes like Gordon Lightfoot seriously. In the process, he helped redefine masculinity for a jaded post-Vietnam, post-hippie America.

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