Bruce had managed to avoid exploitation throughout his career, but come 2003, with audiences still swooning from The Rising, his catalog was ripe for the hits treatment. The Essential Bruce Springsteen isn’t merely an expanded Greatest Hits, nor does it even duplicate that collection. But it does kick off with five radio favorites from his first two albums, and giving more love to most everything after. The title tracks of Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad provide bleak perspectives in between the anthems; meanwhile Born In The U.S.A. is underrepresented, and you’ve got to look elsewhere for “Secret Garden”. (Really? They had to make room for “Mary’s Place”?) The second disc closes with the two new songs from 2001’s Live In New York City, “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “Land Of Hope And Dreams”.
A couple of odd choices aside, this set wouldn’t be worth more than a paragraph’s mention except for the third, “bonus” disc. This sequel to Tracks collects some extraneous soundtrack songs from the ‘90s, such as “Missing”, “Dead Man Walkin’” and “Lift Me Up”. There’s only one B-side (“The Big Payback” from the Nebraska era) but two songs from charity collections—“Trapped”, a live cover of the Jimmy Cliff song previously stuck on the USA For Africa album, and Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas”.
And then there are the completely new songs outside of bootlegs. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” was a River outtake made a hit by Dave Edmunds, followed by “Held Up Without A Gun”, a great live raveup barely longer than a minute. “None But The Brave” was earmarked for Born In The U.S.A. but likely cut for sounding too much like his last two E Street albums, whereas “County Fair” is beloved by collectors who also love “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”. “Code Of Silence” is another rarity from the “reunion” tour, while “Countin’ On A Miracle” is an acoustic alternate played over the PA at the end of the Rising shows.
Given when most of these songs were recorded, they could have easily been slotted into Tracks and still kept under four discs. Why he sat on them for five years is anyone’s guess, but fans can be happy to finally have them.
Bruce Springsteen The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2003)—4