Whilst it at first appears to resemble a greatest hits album, Chapter and Verse is actually something entirely different. Its release is as a companion piece to Springsteen’s new autobiography, appropriately titled Born to Run, and Chapter and Verse seeks to provide a look at the musical evolution he underwent throughout his career, from his earliest beginnings, to his latest albums. As an actual album, it’s fascinating to listen to, even if its unconventional structure leads to significant pacing problems.
The opening 5 tracks of the album are all demos recorded before Springsteen’s breakout success, with several songs stretching as far back as 1966 (he was 17). They’re certainly a fun curiosity, with the opening track Baby I sounding a lot like an early Beatles number, but between the very poor recording quality, and the fairly simplistic songwriting, they’re not actually very engaging to listen to. The album improves significantly when it reaches the 7th track, and gets into Springsteen’s actual albums. 4th of July, Asbury Park makes it easy to see what the critics of the time saw in him; he’s a vivid storyteller, and he allows his characters to become fully formed, taking his time to build up the track.
At the same time though, the next track is Born to Run, and it’s hard not to immediately think “now this is Springsteen” when you first hear that famous saxophone blast. The song has a real star quality to it, between its immersive wall of sound, catchy hook – “tramps like us, baby we were born to run” – and still well-written lyrics. Springsteen really arrived on his third album, and its influence is still strongly felt across the music industry today. The following tracks largely experiment with that formula, such as the pared back instrumentation of Badlands, or the sombre soft-rock of The River. The only real outlier of the album’s middle section (synth heavy songs like Born in the USA are still recognisably of the Born to Run formula) is My Father’s House from the acclaimed Nebraska. Many critics consider that collection of acoustic demos to be Springsteen’s finest work, and it’s easy to see why. There’s such an intimate, relatable warmth to the recording, and the lyrics are intermittently devastating.
Unfortunately, the last third of the album delves into Springsteen’s more modern work, which is generally not up to the high standards of his glory days. The Rising (taken from the 2002 album of the same name, which was largely about 9/11) initially sounds epic and sweeping, but further listens reveal it to be more of an imitation, relying on recording fuzz and building pads in a way that his earlier work didn’t need to. Wrecking Ball is almost a great song, with its big, boisterous chorus, but the recording is just so slick and shiny that all the political anger (it’s all about the Giants stadium being demolished) is smoothed over.
Chapter and Verse is an exceptionally honest album, in that it provides an overview of both the good and the bad of Springsteen’s career. It’s middle section contains some of his best work, but the beginning and end are respectively undercooked and overwrought. His style has been so frequently imitated that it’s an odd experience to listen back to the music that started the arena rock craze, but doing so, it’s easy to understand where its popularity comes from.