In the video for 1993’s ”Streets of Philadelphia,” a solemn Bruce Springsteen ambles slouch-shouldered down desolate streets and empty alleys, a spectre haunting his own moving elegy to a person with AIDS. It’s a fitting metaphor in more ways than one, since this 45-year-old father of three now dwells on the fringes himself, seemingly tentative about jumping back into the rock world. After all, where would he fit in? Springsteen’s creed — using rock & roll as an emotional and creative catharsis from which one emerges a better, more positive-minded person — is out of style. Today’s rock stars run from fame or, if it arrives, are oppressed by it. Their actions seem to say, How could anybody have believed rock & roll could save your soul?
Springsteen’s first-ever studio compilation, Greatest Hits (Columbia), is shrewdly timed: It arrives in stores the day before the Grammy Awards, for which ”Streets of Philadelphia,” included here, will most certainly walk off with at least one win among its five nominations. Arranged chronologically, the set winds its way through Springsteen’s musical and emotional journey. It’s still an invigorating trip: from the youthful swagger of ”Born to Run” through increasing degrees of poignancy (”My Hometown”), rage (”Born in the U.S.A.”), self-deprecating introspection (”Dancing in the Dark”), and adult- level contemplation (”Brilliant Disguise”). The melodramatic blare of ”Badlands” and the Jersey-shore jaunt of ”Glory Days” seem as ancient as the Woody Guthrie recordings Springsteen worships. But ”Atlantic City” can now be heard as a precursor to the alterna-rock bleakness to come, and the magnificent ”The River” will, with any luck, become a folk song in a hundred years.
And yet the collection rings a little hollow. True to the album title, the songs seem to have been chosen for their chart success rather than for artistic merit: Why else would a Springsteen anthology include the lightweight ”Hungry Heart” or the pumped-up-and-nowhere-to-go ”Human Touch” and omit ”Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” ”Blinded by the Light,” ”Bobby Jean,” ”Growin’ Up,” ”One Step Up” — feel free to jump in with a personal favorite. In his liner notes, Springsteen proudly refers to ”Hungry Heart” as ”my first real top 10 smash” and ”Dancing in the Dark” as ”My big smash! No. 2 on the charts.” It’s one thing for the media to gauge an artist by his or her commercial success, but for Springsteen to do it is disorienting, if not depressing. The passion and conviction ingrained in his music never needed to be redeemed by sales statistics.
Was Springsteen so flummoxed by the public indifference that greeted Lucky Town and Human Touch that he looks to chart positions for support? Let’s hope not, but the new songs tacked onto Greatest Hits are a dispiriting lot. Three of the four, all recorded with the reunited E Street Band, are fairly glum and sluggish, lacking the ghostly incandescence of ”Streets of Philadelphia.” ”Blood Brothers” is a virtual kiss-off to the E Streeters: ”We got our own roads to ride and chances we gotta take,” Bruce sings, news that is bound to distress Clarence Clemons. Likewise, ”Secret Garden,” his take on the eternal rock topic of an enigmatic woman, and ”This Hard Land,” one of his boardwalk Westerns, are weighed down with burdens that a good riff can’t resolve. For sheer intensity, none of them compares to the fourth new song — the married-to-the-Mob scorcher ”Murder Incorporated,” recorded, but shelved, in 1982 and remixed for this package.
”Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive/If you can/And meet me in a dream of this hard land,” Springsteen sings in the last words of the album. But his tone is a little weary, even heavyhearted. Greatest Hits leaves you wondering whether one of the most exuberant and thoughtful of American rockers believes in his own dreams anymore. It’s the music equivalent of yet another factory shutting down. B+