CK Retro Review: Born In The U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen

So you thought the covers of Time and Newsweek were big, huh? Born In The U.S.A. brought levels of superstardom to Bruce Springsteen not only unbeknownst to him but also rarely achieved by any popular music artists before or since. Springsteen managed to update his sound and court MTV without sacrificing his critical credibility or songwriting integrity. The result was an album that is one of rock music’s last great consensus moments and deserved every last bit of its popularity. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

12. “I’m Goin’ Down”- Springsteen likely figured this piece of good-timey fluff would be fun filler; little did he know that it would end up being a sixth hit single. Momentum is a funny thing, because it’s still just good-timey fluff, Top 40 status and all.

11. “Darlington County”- On a few of these songs, Bruce managed to marry the pop touch he demonstrated on The River with the social concerns he detailed on Nebraska. This one certainly has a lighter touch, with its cowbells and chirping organ, but it’s still notable that these two clowns are out of work and one of them ends up in the pokey. The lyrical details are almost as fun as Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt’s “sha-la-la” harmonies.

10. “My Hometown”- I’ve always felt that this closing ballad is a bit lumbering in its execution; the music only really starts gliding at the end with the lovely duet between Roy Bittan on synths and Danny Federici on organ. And Springsteen’s lyrics are sometimes less than elegant, although you can forgive them as being apropos to the humility of the narrator. What is impressive is the way Bruce humanizes the story of the town’s deterioration by telling it from the perspective of a father desperate to raise his family and protect his child.

FOUR STARS

9. “Working On The Highway”- It began as a Nebraska tune with dark undertones called “Child Bride.” It evolved into something much less controversial but also much easier to embrace. It makes sense that the rhythm should channel Eddie Cochran, because the narrator certainly has the “Summertime Blues” and then some. His ill-advised advances on a young girl with a protective family lead him into a cell, probably right next to Wayne from the similarly-toned “Darlington County.” Still, it turns out to be a lateral move, since he just goes from one road gang to another. That narrator has enough intrigue to carry this one a few notches higher than your typical 60’s throwback.

8. “I’m On Fire”- The simplicity and directness of the musical approach works in its favor, since it conveys the single-mindedness of the narrator’s pursuit. Again, the synthesizer is well-deployed, this time as a kind of angst-ridden contrast to the steadiness of the boom-chicka beat. Springsteen’s vocal is brilliantly understated here; had he emoted his desire it might have sank the whole song. Instead, he comes off as a man desperate to try to control the burn, lest it consume him.

7. “Downbound Train”- If you’re wondering what a fully-realized electric Nebraska album might have sounded like, this is probably a good place to start. Even with the heft of the drums and the crunch of the guitar, the mood of creeping menace suggested by the lyrics is expertly sustained. Even the synthesizer is in perfect place, mimicking the lonely whistle that drives the narrator to insanity. And I do think it’s that severe, because that final scene where his dream practically mocks him is as harrowing as any Springsteen has produced.

6. “Cover Me”- Born In The U.S.A. doesn’t happen without Jon Landau’s sage advice to Springsteen on song selection and the direction the record should take. He stood firmly in the corner of this sure shot even when Bruce wanted to leave it off the album or give it away to Donna Summer. What Landau heard was the thrust of the rhythm, the anguish of Springsteen’s guitar solos, and the overall urgency of the track. There isn’t an ounce of flab on this thing, and if Bruce needed proof that a song could be a ringing success without taking on the world’s problems or probing some deep psychological mystery, he certainly got it here.

FIVE STARS

5. “Glory Days”- You have such a good time when listening that it’s easy to overlook the craft in the songwriting and the subtle tug of melancholy at its core. The band plays to the rafters in an effort to drown that melancholy out, or at least get everybody to sing along to it. But it’s there nonetheless, lurking in the former baseball star still living off high-school exploits, the former beauty dealing with a divorce, and in the narrator himself, drowning both his sorrows and his awareness of his fast-approaching obsolescence. Side note: Bruce comes off a bit deranged in the last scene of the video. Blame Graig Nettles, I guess.

4. “No Surrender”- Even the most jaded among us would be hard-pressed not to raise our fists in assent with this chill-inducer. People who want to call out the song for being naive are missing the point. Springsteen is well aware of the pitfalls that await us all as life progresses; he just isn’t willing to give up his zest for the good things when they’re still within reach. It may be the most uplifting variant on a theme that Bruce had been harping on for years. And that line about three-minute records? Well, this record is a little longer than that, but it sure teaches a hell of a lot about perseverance and spirit.

3. “Dancing In The Dark”- Again, Landau comes up big here, forcing Springsteen to write another song for the album (when he’d already written about 70) that puts a human face on the working class symbol/superstar. The autobiography cuts pretty deep, as Bruce hints at feeling like a failure and a fraud, desperate to make an impact on the world. Of course, that insecurity just endeared him to all of us even more. The synthetic nature of the music has aged better than probably anyone thought possible at the time of its release, probably because it well suits a narrator trying to real hard to fit in as he ages. Bottom line is this one worthily wears the crown of being Springsteen’s biggest chart success.

2. “Bobby Jean”- Even the glockenspiel sounds a little wistful in this winning meditation on time’s effect on friendship. Maybe Steven Van Zandt’s foray into a solo career was the impetus, but Springsteen goes beyond specific inspirations into territory that anyone who’s ever watched a childhood friendship begin to strain can understand. His vocal hits home because the emotion of it is clearly authentic, emotion driven home by those yearning chord changes and Clarence Clemons’ final word of a sax solo. The narrator’s eventual acceptance of his friend’s departure and his heartfelt well-wishes, well, if they don’t work your heartstrings, you’re a mannequin, my friend.

1. “Born In The U.S.A.”- Let us not, in our haste to praise Springsteen’s brilliant lyrics and their complex mixture of unabashed patriotism and necessary skepticism, overlook the live-wire potency of the recording. Sometimes, when people get too caught up in comparing live versions of his songs, I want to blast this song out at them to remind them that none of that debate even exists had not Bruce’s skill as a record-maker set the template for any concert performances. A magic take captured the soaring sorrow of the main riff, Max Weinberg’s cathartic rolls, and Springsteen’s colossal vocal all at once. Add in those lyrics, all the more searing for being so accurate in their portrayal of a man who gave everything for his country and received betrayal and disillusion in return, and it’s so all-encompassing that it makes sense both as a Fourth of July anthem and as an unforgiving critique.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Don’t forget that my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, will be released in June and is available for pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

http://www.amazon.com/Pump-Up-Elvis-Costellos-Songs-ebook/dp/B00BXLUFN2/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1398012026&sr=1-1&keywords=jim+beviglia

http://www.amazon.com/Breakdown-Tom-Pettys-Best-Songs-ebook/dp/B00C281ZB6/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1398012060&sr=1-4&keywords=jim+beviglia

http://www.amazon.com/No-Surprises-Radioheads-Best-Songs-ebook/dp/B00CEZ2A0M/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1398012076&sr=1-5&keywords=jim+beviglia

 

 

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10 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Born In The U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen”

  1. whalespoon says:

    I know that “Dancing in the Dark” was a huge hit, but I think it is easily the worst song on the album, and one of the most banal in his catalogue–from the cheesy synth intro to lyrics that Bruce could have written in his sleep. Two star song at best. It’s the only song that mars an undisputably great rock album! In its own way, the equal of “Born to Run.” Bruce has never reached these heights since.

    • countdownkid says:

      I would agree with you on the merits of the album. Definitely a triumph. I do think that those lyrics to “Dancing In The Dark” are better than you give them credit. It’s an incisive self-portrait; I talk about this in the book, that it’s one of the first songs that really gave us a snapshot of Springsteen the person. And those lyrics are resonant as well, capturing the figurative impotence of middle-age. As for the synths, I still feel like that song really crackles on the radio. I do think it’s a very tough song to judge because of its popularity though, so defending it is definitely tricky.

      • hans altena says:

        Whereas Born in the USA suffers most of the synthetic treatment, that I just can’t listen to it, the rest of the record is beyond my grasp too, because of those unimaginative 80’s synthesizers that mimick horns and such in a horrible way. The only songs that survive the production for me are I’m on Fire and My Hometown and Downbound Train. But your comments remain insightful, I just don’t get Springsteen on this one…

      • countdownkid says:

        Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 80’s and was sort of inundated to that sound, but I always felt he did a nice job of incorporating the synths. I can see how others might downgrade it though, but I love that album start to finish. It doesn’t sound dated to me, which is an accomplishment for something from that time period.

  2. Ralf Sauter says:

    I think there was a significant change in Springsteen’s characters with this album, and the shift occurred when he was making Nebraska. In his earlier albums such as Born to Run, they’re more self-aware and especially concerned about their status in society, and constantly fighting to better themselves and make something of their lives, whereas in Born in the USA they’re, sure, conscious about what kind of lives they lead, but there’s a naiveness and carelessness about their attitude that I think makes this album super depressing. They just shrug a lot.

    • countdownkid says:

      That’s an interesting take, and I think you’re partially on to something in terms of the way they settle for what’s taking place instead of raging against it. (Off the top of my head, “No Surrender” and “Dancing In The Dark” would probably be exceptions.) I don’t know that it makes the album depressing; maybe just more realistic.

      • Ralf Sauter says:

        I like to call Born in the USA the saddest album to dance to. 🙂 Can’t wait to see your ranking of The Ghost of Tom Joad, which is perhaps his most overlooked album to date.

  3. Ralf Sauter says:

    I actually think Born in the USA is the poorest track on the album, perhaps I’ve just heard it too much, but I always skip it when I play the album. I like Dancing in the Dark, I think it pulls the album together very nicely. You know Bruce really didn’t want to write the song, he was asked to pen something that would turn a hit, so that kind of explains why it starts with the words “…and I ain’t got nothing to say.” His own inability to pen this hit (although it worked out well enough for him) translates into the narrator’s inadequacy pretty fashionably. I did some Springsteen write-ups myself recently and I know how difficult it can be to write about each of his songs because they’re so similar in terms of central ideas. Good work Jim!

    • countdownkid says:

      I’d love to read those write-ups. The hardest thing about doing these lists is properly ranking songs like “Born IN The U.S.A.” that have been heard a billion times. That said, I think this song deserves the ubiquity.

    • Baggy says:

      I agree with you Ralf, i enjoy the album but i always skip the title track. I know it deals with an important subject, but i find it musically tuneless and lyrically turgid. Playing the album though always gives me a raft of pleasant surprises, Glory Days, Bobby Jean, and Downtown Train amongst them.


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