CK Retro Review: Born In The U.S.A. by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 21, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.)