Next Monday sees the release of Bruce Springsteen's new album Magic, a long-awaited reunion with his old comrades The E Street Band.
It follows a sustained period in which his musical interests have leant predominantly towards more low-key, folksy settings, with 2005's Devils and Dust, a sombre series of character studies in the bleak acoustic manner of Nebraska, succeeded last April by his hootenanny tribute to the godfather of politicised folk music, The Seeger Sessions.
Already acclaimed as a return to the ebullient style of those classic crowd-pleasers Born to Run and Born in the USA, and hailed ahead of its release as his most significant work in years, it's a great piece of work, its pumped-up wall of sound and lacquered surfaces disguising the kind of troubled ruminations on society and morality that have made Springsteen the pre-eminent political songwriter of his era. Not that everyone sees it that way, of course. His manager Jon Landau, for instance - the man who, as a Rolling Stone rock critic, came up with the now legendary claim: "I have seen rock'n'roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen" - has described Magic as "a very bright record", the primary intention of which is not political. To which one can but respond in the time-honoured manner of aggrieved NME letter-writers: "Was he listening to the same record as me?" Songs such as "Gypsy Biker", " Last to Die", "Devil's Arcade" and "Your Own Worst Enemy" are not just clearly political, they represent the most complete and damning denunciation of Bush's foolhardy adventurism in Iraq yet thrown up by rock music.
But then Springsteen, like any articulate songwriter grappling with complex issues beyond the pop imperatives of dancing and romancing, has always been prey to misinterpretation - most spectacularly when Ronald Reagan's campaign chiefs managed to mis-read "Born in the USA" as a feelgood patriotic anthem, rather than an indictment of the country's social decay as seen through the eyes of a Vietnam veteran. Quite obviously, in that case at least, they absolutely weren't listening to the same record as the rest of us.
For me, the success of this latest batch of songs resides in the way Springsteen approaches his subject. Firstly, the big issue is never mentioned directly, looming intangibly instead, as he depicts the effects of combatants' death or disability on friends and relatives in the US - a distancing technique that has the paradoxical effect of bringing the war closer to home. Secondly, in order to convey the longer-term ramifications of the conflict, several songs feature projections into a scarred, uncertain future, rather than into the romantic past that once dominated his albums. And thirdly, there is - or there "appears" to be, I should perhaps phrase it in the circumstances - an underlying theme of illusion and deception running throughout the album that surely allegorises the ethical sleight-of-hand that has thrown his country's moral compass out of alignment. Betrayal is a constant companion in these songs, whether it's the craven media lambasted in "Radio Nowhere" as Bruce vainly spins his radio dial searching for "a world with some soul", the " speculators [who] made their money on the blood you shed" in " Gypsy Biker", or the "sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under" as the groundswell of post-9/11 patriotism is hijacked to perfidious ends in "Livin' in the Future". As Springsteen warns in the title-track, "Trust none of what you hear, and less of what you see. "
That advice, however, might well be heeded by those of us - myself included - who would try to confine Springsteen to their own preferred interpretation of him. Just as there are many fans - particularly non-American fans - who like to characterise Bruce as a man of virtue and probity, one of the last hold-outs for an increasingly tarnished set of American values, there are doubtless millions of others who'd prefer to draw a discreet veil over the conscience-tweaking concerns of The Ghost of Tom Joad, and simply exult in The Boss's capacity for good-time, boozy rock'n'roll fun. And who is to say they are wrong?
Certainly not Springsteen himself, who remains a firm believer in the notion of individuals having "multiple selves". During his VH1 Storytellers show in 2005, he recounted an amusing tale of how a couple had spied him leaving a New Jersey strip-joint and upbraided him in the parking lot, telling him he shouldn't be there. "I'm not," he responded mischievously. "I am simply an errant figment of one of Bruce's many selves. I drift in the ether over the highways and byways of the Garden State, often touching down in image-incongruous but fun places. Bruce does not even know I am missing. He is at home right now, doing good deeds!" Which is a lot more fun - and considerably more polite - than just telling them to mind their own damn business, the inalienable right of any public figure pestered during their private time.
For a long time, however, Bruce Springsteen would not have turned any heads as he exited a strip club. An ineffectual high-school student sustained by dreams of rock'n'roll stardom, he spent his teenage years performing in local New Jersey bands like The Castiles, Steel Mill, Sundance Blues Band and Dr Zoom & The Sonic Boom, groups whose names indicate the diverse range of musics with which he developed a familiarity: R&B, rock'n'roll, heavy metal, blues, soul, and whatever psychedelic delights were indulged by Dr Zoom. By the time he was 23, he had assembled around him the musicians who would form the core of The E Street Band, and had developed the facility at writing verbose, Dylanesque songs that originally attracted the attention of John Hammond, the legendary talent scout who had discovered Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen.
As with Dylan before him, it initially seemed as if Springsteen would be another "Hammond's Folly", as his early albums Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle struggled to find an audience, and the "new Dylan" millstone seemed like it might become the headstone on his faltering career. By the time he came to make his third album, he knew it was his last throw of the dice, and so pulled out all the stops, his band spending months painstakingly layering the instrumental parts that might help realise his vision of a combination of Dylan's wordiness, Roy Orbison's operatic delivery, and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Finally, after Clarence Clemons had spent 16 hours piecing together, fragment by fragment, the sax solo on " Jungleland", Springsteen declared the album finished, even though by that time he had grown thoroughly sick of the way it "ate up everyone's life" . Born to Run was released on 25 August 1975. Two months later, Bruce Springsteen achieved the unprecedented feat of appearing on the covers of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously.
Born to Run almost instantly became one of rock's landmark works, while the years of playing small clubs now paid off handsomely, as Bruce's band became famous as the most thrilling and cathartic live act on the circuit. But the vertiginous turnaround in his fortunes also had a seismic effect on Springsteen's life. As he explained in an insightful interview by Phil Sutcliffe in Mojo: "Fame... is interesting because it makes you very present and you have a lot of impact, but it also separates you and makes you very singular. You're now having an experience that not many other people you know are having. Its irony is that it carries its own type of loneliness."
His response to that loneliness was evident on the 1978 follow-up album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Where Born to Run had been brash and ebullient, an optimistic celebration of rock'n'roll's liberating spirit and a romanticised indulgence of its street mythology, new songs like the title-track and "Racing in the Street" were sombre pieces, haunted by failure, regret and spurned hope, while the protagonists of "Factory" and "The Promised Land" were frustrated working men with " death in their eyes" and violence on their mind. In the three years since he had been catapulted to stardom, Springsteen had developed the social conscience that increasingly came to dominate his work, from sources as diverse as John Ford's film of The Grapes of Wrath and the writings of historian Henry Steele Commager, which he claimed was: "The first thing I read that made me feel part of a historic continuum," and which cemented his ideas about civic duty and collective responsibility. His 1980 work The River offered a rapprochement of sorts between the popular party anthems of Born to Run and the blue-collar anxieties of Darkness on the Edge of Town, but 1982's stark, solo acoustic offering Nebraska blindsided fans with its bleak, brutal depictions of cops, killers, lifers and losers, desperate men pushed to their limits and beyond. It didn't sell too well.
Born in the USA, however, sold by the shedload. The 1984 release, a return to the bi-facial, party'n'ponder approach of The River, remains one of rock's most successful albums, shifting over 15 million copies in America alone. The E Street Band climbed back on the tour bus - now more likely to be a private jet - and hauled their way around the world's football stadia for a record-breaking concert schedule, during which Springsteen met model Julianne Phillips, who would become his first wife in May 1985. Sadly, it would prove a troubled union, the singer's unhappiness being reflected in the subsequent Tunnel of Love, an album replete with misgivings, reproach, and the kind of unfulfilled hopes that on previous releases would have been ascribed to downtrodden working men.
Ironically, it was during the subsequent Tunnel of Love Express Tour in 1988 that Springsteen's affair with backing singer Patti Scialfa would become public knowledge. He and Phillips divorced in 1990, and Springsteen married Scialfa the following year. With its low-key arrangements featuring drum machines and synthesiser, Tunnel of Love was unlike anything else he had recorded, and though it remains a critical and fan favourite, the circumstances surrounding it have made him reluctant to perform its songs live.
Happily, his marriage to Scialfa has proven much more durable, producing three children, now aged between 13 and 17. As so often when creative types' demons are subdued, however, Springsteen's work has since largely lacked the bite and edge that once drove his muse. Subsequent releases such as Human Touch, Lucky Town and the mostly acoustic, overly finger-wagging The Ghost of Tom Joad were pale, anaemic affairs by his standards, and the post-9/11 offering The Rising, despite selling well in his homeland, seemed an ineffectual, confused response to the tragedy, short on insight and uncertain in its reaction to events. Once acutely aware of the tarnish on the great chrome bumper of the American Dream, in common with many of his countrymen he now seemed to exhibit a degree of difficulty in visualising his own country as it appeared from outside its borders.
Thankfully, Springsteen's political gyroscope has since re-levelled, and he played an important part in the Vote For Change campaign encouraging the young, poor and minorities to register to vote, and his song "No Surrender" was adopted as John Kerry's campaign anthem during his unsuccessful run for president. And in 2006, Springsteen became absorbed in the project honouring the activist folk-singer Pete Seeger, for so long America's conscience, recording a selection of politicised traditional songs associated with Seeger in rumbustious hootenanny manner. It seemed to some like an acknowledgement of his true heritage, an acceptance that ultimately, he would have to assume Seeger's mantle as People's Tribune, and that when that time came, he would do so willingly.
With Magic, he's getting his troops back in line behind him. It's Springsteen's most complex, textured work in years, as rich as any in his catalogue, with songs that both challenge, inform and entertain. He once observed, in his lyrics anthology Songs, that a song's emotional centre is dependent on the fellowship the writer feels with his subject, that when a lyric falls perfectly into place, "your voice disappears into the voices of those you've chosen to write about". On Magic this happens time and time again, as he proves himself a master of the empathy required to bring his characters to life in all their contradictory, multiple selves.
The photographs on these pages are taken from the exhibition Bruce Springsteen: the Boss Revealed, which runs from 26 October to 2 December at Proud Central, 5 Buckingham Street, London, WC2, and includes pictures from Terry O'Neill, Lynn Goldsmith, Barry Plummer, Adrian Boot, Rene van Diemen, Debra L Rothenberg and Jim Marchese.For more information about this and other Proud Galleries exhibitions, visit www.proud.co.uk