Wednesday, February 6, 2013

You've Seen The Image, But Have You Heard Born In The U.S.A.?

The Good: A decent mix of rock and roll and pop, Some wonderful lyrics, Good voice
The Bad: Some very lame lyrics, Remarkably derivative sounds
The Basics: Bruce Springsteen creates a seminal rock album about urban decay and consequences of loneliness and loss with Born In The U.S.A.

Recently, I've been listening to a great deal of Bruce Springsteen's music, though most of it has been his newer works. I praised his middle-of-the-road endeavor The Rising and panned The Ghost Of Tom Joad. After being utterly unimpressed by his album Devils & Dust, I decided it was time to go back to the source. No, I didn't head for Springsteen's debut or his popular "Born To Run," I went for his iconic Born In The U.S.A. Anyone who lived through the '80s can pick the cover to Born In The U.S.A. out easily; it's the one with Bruce Springsteen's jean-clad butt in front of the American flag. You know, the one with the red baseball cap in his back pocket. If you didn't live through the 80s, it's an iconic image of the decade. Seriously.

With twelve tracks clocking in at just under 47 minutes, Born In The U.S.A. is Bruce Springsteen's best-selling album to date having spawned hit songs Born In The U.S.A., "I'm On Fire," "Glory Days," and "Dancing In The Dark." Those just tuning in might know "No Surrender" from the campaign John Kerry ran for president; if only had heeded it's message and not ceded so quickly on Ohio . . . Sigh.

Bruce Springsteen is a rock and roll star and Born In The U.S.A. is a strong rock and roll showing that easily rivals other albums of the time to define what the sound of the decade was. Unlike outings like Huey Lewis and the News's album Sports (reviewed here!), which harkened back to the doo-wop sound, Springsteen creates a sound reminiscent of Elvis Presley meets Johnny Cash. "I'm Goin' Down" sounds like it could have been a lost Elvis track the way Springsteen presents it with his gravely voice and articulate wailings. Similarly, "Working On The Highway" is even accompanied in such a way that makes the listener think of Elvis. I wish there were a Johnny Cash cover of "I'm On Fire," as I suspect it would sound phenomenal from him, so intriguing is the song and so like a Cash song.

Ironically, the title track, co-opted by Ronald Reagan as a patriotic anthem, “Born In The U.S.A.” (the single) is indicative of a pretty dodgy album in terms of themes. Born In The U.S.A. (the album) is mostly about decay, aging and loneliness. “Born In The U.S.A.” (the single) is about a troublemaker sent off to war who comes home and finds limited economic opportunity ("Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man / . . . Come back home to the refinery / Hiring man says 'son if it was up to me' / Went down to see my V.A. man / He said 'son don't you understand now'"). Far from patriotic, it decries the way veterans are treated and the unfortunate reality that the government uses its undesirables for combat as opposed to developing programs to allow them to reform and grow.

Following on the heels of such a strong rock anthem is the surprisingly poppy "Cover Me," a singsongy track about a person who wants to hide from the world. Unlike most of the album, "Cover Me" resorts to some of the most unfortunate and simple rhymes out there (both today and back in the early 80s when the album was released. Hearing Springsteen eke out rhymes like tougher/rougher, score/more, and door/more as well as rhyming "us" with itself made me cringe. This made me cringe because Springsteen closes the album with the brilliantly folk-like "My Hometown," which tells a story of urban decay and conflict with complex lines like, "In '65 tension was running high, at my high school / There was (sic) a lot of fights between the black and white / There was nothing you r could do / Two cars at a light on a Saturday night, in the back seat there was a gun / Words were passed, in a shotgun blast / Troubled times had come to my hometown . . ." It's not simple and Springsteen is not simplistic.

Springsteen is very much an artist, though. Born In The U.S.A. was entirely written by Springsteen (lyrics and music) and he co-produced the album as well. Interestingly, he also holds the copyright, something almost unheard of in this age of corporate contracts. He plays guitar, but is backed by the E Street Band on this album. They are a great combination of guitars, pianos, keyboards, drums, bass, saxophone and organs. They provide a solidly rock and roll foundation for Springsteen.

What impresses me about Born In The U.S.A. today is how the album was praised as an innocuous album and co-opted by Reagan for its title track. "Darlington County" is a song about two guys who just got their paycheck and solicit a couple of girls, "Working On The Highway" is a lament about laboring for the state and "Downbound Train" has a protagonist who is laid off! Even the sultry, "I'm On Fire" has a tentative, very lonely quality to it.

Perhaps the masses just liked the sound. It's an easy album to like the sound of, if you don't listen to the lyrics. Springsteen has a great baritone voice that is clear, but easy to get lost in. The combination of instruments backing his voice creates a very rich sound, especially by today's standards.

And that's not to criticize the lyrics, they are wonderful. Springsteen is a poet with some of the best musical stories, rivaling even Dylan on Born In The U.S.A. When he sings, "Hey little girl is your daddy home / Did he go away and leave you all alone / I got a bad desire / I'm on fire" ("I'm On Fire"), I still get chills. But thematically, Born In The U.S.A. is about decay and collapse.

Only Springsteen could make that sound real good. On Born In The U.S.A. he does.

The best track is "I'm On Fire," the low point is "Cover Me."

For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
Greatest Hits
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
The Rising
Devils & Dust


For an organized listing of all the albums I have reviewed, please check out my Music Review Index Page!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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