The expectations surrounding “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live/1975-1985” may have been impossibly high. After more than a decade of acclaimed tours and genuinely legendary concerts, the album had to be just about the the greatest live rock collection ever released--or else it would be viewed as a letdown.

Sure enough, the 40-song, five-record set does capture brilliantly some of rock’s greatest live performances. And, perhaps inevitably, it’s something of a letdown. Perhaps no album could quite convey the visceral punch and spontaneous abandon of Springsteen’s most memorable evenings.

But then, “Live/1975-1985” doesn’t try to capture a single concert. Instead, it’s a bold attempt to summarize 10 years of remarkable performances--a strategy that makes it a far riskier undertaking than such classic live LPs as James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” or Otis Redding’s “Live in Europe” or Bob Dylan’s “Before the Flood.”


“Live/1975-1985” is a likely ground-breaker commercially. Columbia Records is reportedly shipping about 2 million albums, cassettes and compact discs. Clearly, the label doesn’t expect the album’s price--about $25 to $30 for LPs and cassettes, $40 for CDs--to prevent it from becoming the first five-record set to break into the Top 10, or even the first five-record set to go platinum (sales of 1 million copies). It might even be the first five-record set to reach No. 1.

Until now, no five-record set has even made the Top 25. The eight-record “Elvis Aron Presley” box peaked at No. 27 in 1980, while Dylan’s five-record “Biograph” reached No. 33 in January. But with numerous record stores around the country reportedly placing their biggest orders ever, Springsteen is a cinch to surpass those marks.

The expectations are high simply because Springsteen has been acclaimed as perhaps rock’s greatest live performer. His records mix the exhilarating release of party-time rock with thoughtful, tough-minded social comment, but it’s in his marathon concerts that he’s developed both of those strains most fully.

For years, fans have circulated bootlegs of Springsteen performances and speculated about an official live release. Initially, it seemed as if he’d need a three-record set to fully document his emotional and musical range.

But as his body of work expanded, it became clear that he would need more than three records to do the job. In fact, there’ll be more people bemoaning the absence of key Springsteen songs than complaining that the set is padded.

So how’s the music?

From lovely, piano-backed “Thunder Road” from ’75 that opens the album to the wholly different thunder of Springsteen’s 1985 stadium shows, the album presents some of the most moving rock songs of the past decade in versions that, often as not, make even the top-notch original studio recordings sound like rough blueprints.

The songs are mostly from Springsteen’s seven albums, along with tunes of his recorded by others (a sensual version of “Fire,” a fiery “Because the Night”) and four outside songs: the Eddie Floyd-Steve Cropper-Alvertis Isbell Stax hit “Raise Your Hand,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Barret Strong and Norman Whitfield’s angry “War” and Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl.”

The order is roughly chronological. The LP starts out acoustic in 1975, then brings in the E Street Band for the tours of 1978, 1980-81 and, especially, 1984-85.

Near the end, there’s a bittersweet solo version of “No Surrender"--another rock tune turned acoustic--and then Springsteen brings it all back home by serenading his home state with a brassy “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and, finally, a lulling “Jersey Girl,” the album’s only previously released track.

Springsteen has been rockin’ all over the world for years, but this record comes from the coasts: 17 of the songs are from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or the Roxy, while 21 come from three New York-area concert facilities. The only off-the-beaten-track locale represented is Tempe, Ariz., where a ferocious 1980 version of “Badlands” was Springsteen’s explicit reaction to the previous day’s election of Ronald Reagan.

Overall, the set tells a tale of maturation: from the romantic, wordy zest of “Rosalita” to the sober, economical punch of “Born in the U.S.A.” From the giddy teen-age escapades of “Spirit in the Night” to the unsettling, violent story of “Nebraska.” From a brash, funny 1978 monologue about family clashes to a 1985 narrative that covers similar ground but makes touching points about parental concern.

The later songs are clouded with the realization that the romance and escape Springsteen sang about in 1975 aren’t always possible 10 years down the road, but the sheer force and majesty of the E Street Band make everything stirring: supercharged rockers like “Candy’s Room,” ballads like the monumental, heartbreaking “Racing in the Street,” grim acoustic songs like “Johnny 99.” And placing the youthful bravura of “Born to Run” next to the sobering “My Hometown” doesn’t diminish either song. Instead, it gives both of them added poignancy and punch.

The album’s most riveting sequence, however, moves from “Born in the U.S.A.” to the harrowing new rocker “Seeds” to the ballad “The River” to Edwin Starr’s ‘70s soul hit “War.” According to Springsteen’s own liner notes, these are the songs that prompted the idea of a live album--and between fearsome performances and eloquent spoken introductions, they make up the most pointed, bitterly political statement of Springsteen’s career. They’re required listening for anybody who still thinks that “Born in the U.S.A.” is a patriotic anthem.

The “Born"/"War” sequence is vintage live Springsteen, using monologues and concert pacing to give the songs new, telling contexts. And that, surprisingly, is where some of the album falls short.

It’s not just that the record misses the sheer force of Springsteen’s stage presence. In a way, “Live/1975-1985” also seems like a failure of nerve on the part of the last artist you’d expect to have one, because it leaves out many of the things that make Springsteen’s concerts special: his introductions, his versions of other people’s songs, his own unreleased tunes, the sense of reckless unpredictability.

The song selection bypasses surprises in favor of six songs from “The River,” eight from “Born in the U.S.A.” In addition, tunes were edited to more closely resemble their original versions: a haunting introduction he used at Giants Stadium was left off “I’m on Fire,” for example, while “Backstreets” completely omits a lengthy, semi-improvised interlude that, at the Roxy, was this rendition’s most striking feature.

It’s not a sellout. If Springsteen wanted to do that, he would have made a two- or three-record set and included versions of the hit singles “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days.” More likely, he decided that the best way to summarize his first decade was with the songs that made his reputation. But that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting to find trifles like “Darlington County” on a set that omits his roaring version of John Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and showstoppers like “Prove It All Night,” “Point Blank” and the exquisite, unreleased ballad “The Promise.”

Every Springsteen fan will have a different list of musts, and they don’t call him the Boss because he makes records to please everybody else. But by concentrating on the tried-and-true, the album suggests that Springsteen concerts are simply collections of terrific performances, when in fact their resonance reaches far beyond simple virtuosity.

Still, these complaints would never arise if it weren’t for Springsteen’s track record. “Live/1975-1985” justifies its nearly four-hour length, it’s essential for his fans and nearly essential for all rock fans. It’s not everything it could have been, but how can you honestly fault a guy for raising the expectations so high that even he can’t live up to them?