Winning a Best Song Oscar for his elegiac "Streets of Philadelphia" did more than jump-start the Boss's flagging career—it seems to have revitalized his capacity for nicely observed, highly visual storytelling. Each song on this collection of often bleak portrayals of American life is written almost as a mini movie script. With limited instrumentation—Springsteen often accompanies himself with only a guitar or piano—the lyrics and imagery take center stage. The title track is a moving song in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, about those with no real tomorrow to wake up to: "The highway is alive tonight/But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes." In "The Line" he explores the plight of illegal aliens, singing about an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent who falls for a Mexican woman and soon finds himself attempting to get her over the border.
As visually evocative as these tales may be, however, the music is strangely unimaginative. Springsteen's plaintive drawl and his simple picking create an appropriately stark ambience, but there is no variation from track to track. Okay, Bruce may no longer yearn to let those arena anthems rip, but sometimes this CD feels like it needs a shot of melody—or musical energy—to keep listeners from squirming in their seats. (Columbia)