'Greatest Hits' for Springsteen? It's a start

This album, by nature, was destined to succeed — yet fail.

"Bruce Springsteen — Greatest Hits"

To those familiar with the artist's music, even the title seems like an oxymoron.

The "greatest" music of Bruce Springsteen simply can't fit on one album.

Sure, in his 22—year career, The Boss has had some hits, but they're not always a true reflection of the depth and quality of each record and of the songwriting brilliance consistently displayed by America's greatest story—teller.

To compile a true collection of the best of Springsteen, you'd have to take several songs from all 13 of his albums, a few unreleased flip—sides, and a few tracks off of his live LP and package them all into one whopping box set. The total number of songs would probably reach nearly 100, but only then would you actually have the best of The Boss.

Still, "Bruce Springsteen — Greatest Hits," which debuts at number-one on the Billboard album chart this week, attempts to do in 18 tracks what no album can: capture the magic of Springsteen on one record.

Opening with the timeless masterpiece, "Born To Run," it's reassuring to find that the song's spirited cry of youth — echoing the frustration of small town boredom and the desire to break free — hasn't lost one bit of the vibrancy or relevancy that it captured 20 years ago. "Thunder Road," also from "Born To Run" is definitive Springsteen: detailed, extremely visual lyrics, and Clarence Clemmons famous sax solo at song's end stands as one of the highlights of what can only be described as truly landmark album.

"Badlands," unfortunately, is the only song offered from 1978's flawless "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" LP. An up—tempo rocker which like many Springsteen songs perfectly meshes guitar, piano and sax, "Badlands" typifies the sound of "Darkness," but not the entire mood. "Racing In The Streets" should've been there, too.

Two tracks from the 1980 double—album, "The River," are also showcased, including the haunting and visual title track. There's little room for interpretation in songs such as this, but part of the beauty in this music is that it comes from the pre—MTV era, allowing the millions of fans who have embraced it to place their own faces, images and settings into the crystal clear scenery Springsteen has painted.

"Hungry Heart," also from "The River," was a big hit for The Boss and remains a concert favorite, thus meriting inclusion on the record. But like "Dancing In the Dark" — another chart buster which appears on the new release "Hungry Heart" is not a deep enough, accurate portrayal of Springsteen's music, and those who have heard it on the radio and assume it's indicative of his work are missing the big picture.

"Atlantic City," recorded on Springsteen's home 4—track recorder, offers a sad commentary on the big casino boom of the late '70s and early '80s that invaded and — in the opinion of some — destroyed the once friendly seaside city. Drawn from the simple, acoustic "Nebraska" LP, the Dylan—esque number never tore up the charts, yet clearly stands out as one of the album's gems.

The "big" period is next — "Born In The U.S.A."

Four tracks from one of the best selling LPs of all time are here: "Dancing In the Dark," "Born In The U.S.A," "My Hometown" and "Glory Days." The latter three are certainly the finest of the group, and each offers a different look at the many sides of Springsteen's stirring emotions: "Born In the U.S.A" — anger, "My Hometown," — sentimentality, and "Glory Days" — nostalgia.

"Brilliant Disguise," from 1987's "Tunnel Of Love," is also a welcome inclusion. Dealing with the mistrust, deception and self—doubt, the song was written during Springsteen's troubled first marriage and sounds like it.

Two songs from 1992's vastly underrated and simultaneously released "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" albums are also included. The vulnerable title track from "Human Touch" offers a smooth delivery and some fine arrangements, and the optimistic "Better Days" from "Lucky Town" seemingly reveals the happiness Springsteen has found in his second marriage. This music seemed to have been lost in the Springsteen shuffle, mainly because of a horrible marketing plan. The idea of releasing two albums from the same artist on the same day may have seemed novel at the time, but in retrospect, it was certainly a mistake. Word—of—mouth circulated that one album was better than the other (with no consistency, of course), and the fans who couldn't afford to buy both records at once simply picked one and planned to get the other later.

On "Greatest Hits," at least we get one sample from each.

"Streets of Philadelphia" is also here, previously available only as a single or on the "Philadelphia" film soundtrack. A firsthand account of someone afflicted with AIDS, Springsteen's ability to empathize with others — and write about it — helped the song win an Academy Award and four Grammys.

Then comes the true appeal of "Greatest Hits" to die—hard fans.

Four new tracks.

Offering a reunion of The E Street Band, "Secret Garden" deals with the protective emotional walls men and women build up in relationships. It also offers some subtle, yet beautiful sax work by Clarence Clemons. The driving "Murder Incorporated" — a song Springsteen actually recorded in 1982 — will surely delight long—time fans, and the value of friendship emphasized in "Blood Brothers" seems appropriate for this E Street reunion.

The album wraps up with the folksy and eclectic "This Hard Land."

"Greatest Hits" is certainly a fine compilation, it's just not big enough.

What's missing?

"Blinded By The Light," "Rosalita," "Backstreets," "Jungleland," "Prove It All Night," "I'm On Fire," "Tunnel of Love," "Spirit In The Night," "One Step Up" ... the list could go on.

Perhaps Columbia Records felt a double—disc greatest hits package was too risky, as albums such as this are frequently the first purchase a new fan of an artist will make. They were correct, in theory, and "Greatest Hits" does serve as an ample introduction to The Boss' music.

But there's more.

Maybe the release would be better titled "Bruce Springsteen —— SOME of the Greatest Hits."