For someone who once seemed inescapable, Bruce Springsteen has had a peculiarly quiet time of it in the 1990s. It's a long time since he was almost the hottest property in rock - and it's difficult to recall that, when Born in the USA came out in 1984, Springsteen was the all- conquering giant in American music. That supremely confident and powerful record proved, though, to be the close of a chapter rather than the start of a new era for him. Ever since, he has grown quieter, more thoughtful, careless of expectation. Following The Ghost of Tom Joad, a record that came and went with barely a public murmur, now comes Tracks (Epic), no fewer than four discs and 66 songs from his workbench - a quarter-century of music-making, all but a handful of tracks previously unreleased.
Not that a lot of it hasn't been heard before. Springsteen has been the most comprehensively bootlegged artist since Bob Dylan, and many of these songs will be familiar to his most ardent followers. The excellent 1970s bootleg Fire on the Fingertips, for instance, is here in its entirety. Now, though, it takes its place among a great trove of material that is vivid evidence of Springsteen's prolific inspiration. Less a natural talent than a compulsive worker, like so many of the blue-collar subjects of his best songs, Springsteen has spent his artistic life nagging away at a handful of concerns which continue to bother him: broken promises, love turning cold, a familiar way of life being both consolation and prison. The beauty of this set lies in the way it displays his virtuosity in turning these matters over and over in his mind.
It starts with his original demos for John Hammond, going as far back as 1972. Most of the tracks on the first two discs are in the rather blustering vernacular of his music with the E Street Band, a handsome if frequently theatrical group who were Springsteen's constant companions in his first 15 years of work. There are plenty of brawny, invigorating set pieces here in the manner of The River, the sprawling collection which Springsteen released at the end of the 1970s. But the later tracks are far more powerful and rewarding. An early "Born in the USA" itself, with an entirely different melody line, is like a rockabilly ghost of the familiar version.
When Springsteen took to working almost by himself, often with only a synthesiser line and a drumbeat accompaniment, his work sounded both softer and sharper - more richly melodic, more poignantly composed. Although he seemed to withdraw from the rock mainstream, he is emphatically not a folk artist but a product of rock'n'roll: a raw power underscores songs like "My Lover Man" and "When the Lights Go Out" which is not the preserve of folk music. Yet a listen to the simple but stingingly eloquent lyrics of a song such as "Loose Change" suggests how his writing has a starkly visionary feel to it that ties him as closely to William Faulkner as to Bob Dylan. As a musician, he has a streak of remorse that will always dog him: even in a song called "Happy", he drops in minor chords that will unsettle any listener. His voice has changed dramatically over the years, from the almost vaudevillian singer of the early tracks to the chastened, evocative vocalist on the recent ones - a pilgrim's progress to which this long, fascinating archive bears compelling witness.