Bruce Springsteen - American Beauty EP | Album Review | By Volume

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Bruce Springsteen

American Beauty EP

B-sides of The Boss being, well, The Boss. Nothing groundbreaking, but it doesn’t aspire to be.

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Author: on April 22, 2014
Columbia Records

It’s easy to understand how the exclusive nature of Record Store Day might make it particularly prone to exploitation, but this year things may have finally crossed a line. In March, the distribution company Kudos published a now-famous blogpost that decried the damage that RSD was doing to the very businesses it was established to protect: “It now feels like [RSD] has been appropriated by major labels and larger indies”, wrote Kudos. “To the extent that smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year are effectively penalized.”

Kudos’ plight is just one of many in an industry where a lack of spending power usually equates to de facto marginalization. With vinyl pressing plants currently in short supply, smaller companies with correspondingly smaller orders often end up being locked out of the business entirely as the plants begin to receive – and prioritize – orders for thousands of so-called “RSD exclusive” releases – the vast majority of which are actually fronted by major labels. The extent to which capitalism has gotten its grubby fingers all over Record Store Day can also be seen in the raw amount of RSD exclusives made available to the music-listening public over the years: in 2012 there were approximately four-hundred RSD releases; this year the number is closer to seven-hundred. Like so many other aspects of the music industry, the event has started to become synonymous with shameless profiteering; commerce over community, all over again.

When viewed through that lens, American Beauty, the 12″ Bruce Springsteen EP released specifically for RSD 2014, quickly begins to look like pure anathema. It gets even worse when you consider that The Boss’ most recent studio output, January’s High Hopes, could easily be filed under shit no one needs to own, ever. And it’s also particularly skewering that Springsteen is signed to Columbia Records, the oldest brand name in recorded sound. Yet the four-track EP does exude a certain charm, which I surmise is mainly due to the fact that it makes no effort to disguise its humble origins as a motley collection of B-sides. Two of the tracks on American Beauty, namely the title track and “Hurry Up Sundown”, are outtakes from the High Hopes sessions, whereas “Mary Mary” and “Hey Blue Eyes” are sketches that date back to the Magic and Working on a Dream periods, respectively. “They’re just good music that didn’t get onto [High Hopes]” explains Springsteen.

The EP’s two sides follow a similar template: an uptempo rocker leads into a more pensive and fleeting number, although it has to be said that neither side feels significantly better than the other. But while it is clear that Springsteen probably wasn’t completely done with any of these four songs – “Mary Mary”, in particular, is missing a proper bridge or a discernible climax – they at least provide the opportunity to appraise a Bruce Springsteen record from an entirely different perspective. “American Beauty”, which opens proceedings, is the kind of song that The Boss could probably write in his sleep, but it also features the novelty of him attempting a higher range of singing than usual. Elsewhere, “Hurry Up Sundown” features Springsteen at his barnstorming finest, with typical working-class rallying cries (“The end of another working day!”; “Change your clothes and go for a ride!”) underscoring his carefully cultivated image of a layman with a guitar and a particularly sonorous voice.

But all things made equal, “Hey Blue Eyes” will likely prove to be the most intriguing cut on the EP. For lyric analysts prone to extended bouts of verbal spelunking, the song is practically a treasure trove: “They’re holding the committee of treason and lies”, begins Springsteen above prodding acoustic strums. “Doublespeak and sedition, then somebody dies.” The Boss may be no stranger to dense imagery, but when employed with no restraint as it is here, it’s about as close as we can get to hearing him channel his inner Bob Dylan in this day and age. For better or worse though, the song never once loses its feel of being a formal experiment; a mere means to an end. “Just a false taste of paradise”, as Springsteen himself puts it about halfway through the second verse. American Beauty may not be the most interesting RSD release there ever was, but it certainly dispels concerns that the burgeoning capitalistic machine behind it is utterly incapable of producing releases worth purchasing. If you feel that Record Store Day is really all about improving your record collection, then you probably won’t regret forking out some dough for this.

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