By the time Bruce Springsteen hit his commercial stride with 1984's Born in the U.S.A., he'd grown accustomed to playing roles. The public saw him as a rough-hewn, apple-pie rocker, thanks to the iconic denim-clad-ass-on-American-flag album cover, but over the course of the previous decade, he'd also been a populist provocateur (1982's Nebraska), a '50s nostalgic (The River double LP, 1980), and a brooding urban poet (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978).
It took overglossed '80s arena rock to boost the Boss's shape-shifting into the country's mainstream consciousness, but the process actually began in 1975 with Born to Run, when Springsteen went for broke and declared himself bigger than he actually was. Booming production, packed arrangements, voluminous jams, and endless codas cried, "Here I am; I'm a fucking rock star!" For a heretofore midlevel artist, the move was ballsy. But it worked; a cult following snowballed from there, and in his home state of New Jersey, Springsteen was revered as a minor deity.
His music of this era is mostly excellent stuff, from the viola strains of the street-life passion play "Jungleland" to the lusty, pulsing "I'm on Fire." But in terms of promise and sincerity, none of it approaches the formative crystal ball that is his 1973 sophomore outing The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
At the time it was recorded, Springsteen was 23 years old. He had been gigging around the Jersey Shore and New York City for five years. He'd acquired fans, firmed up the roster of what would later become known as the E Street Band, and decided that the nasal histrionics of his first role, wannabe Bob Dylan, weren't quite working. This time, he was just gonna be Bruce.
Kicking off with the loose corner-store disco of "The E Street Shuffle," the album dips into the various styles embellished upon later in his career. The quirky waltz "Wild Billy's Circus Story" is droll and folksy; "Incident on 57th Street" and "New York City Serenade" are epic. "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" carries hints of early rock 'n' roll while highlighting the killer saxophone work of Clarence Clemons and the ringing, commanding Hammond organ of Danny Federici, two touchstone elements of the E Street Band.
Lyrically, Springsteen spends the album narrating the lives of his fellow young misfits, sympathizing with the plights of their beat-up Buicks and tumbles with the police while pining for something more. As he sits on the sand dunes, watching the fireworks with his lover in the gorgeous, Van Morrison–influenced number "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," Springsteen reaches a realization: "For me, this boardwalk life is through/you oughta quit this scene too."
The bittersweet mood of this romantic swan song, and of the album as a whole, is crystallized in David Gahr's cover photograph showing the singer with his hands to his face, lips pursed, gently blowing a kiss. It's as if, through The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen—as himself, free of the roles he would adopt later—simultaneously said goodbye to the small world of his youth while looking ahead toward everything that was to come.