Bruce Springsteen's hit album Born in the U.S.A. celebrates its 30th anniversary this week and to celebrate we take a look back at Tony K's feature about the album from our Bruce Springsteen month in 2009.
Here is Anthony Kuzminski's review of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. The granddaddy of all Bruce Springsteen albums, Born in the U.S.A. was where he finally broke through to the mainstream in an immense fashion. Back in the mid-1980's, I was too young to appreciate the music of the time, but even I knew who Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen were. Springsteen went from being a cult artist with an intensely loyal following to one of the biggest music stars on the planet. However, what many don't realize is that towards the end of The River tour, Springsteen could sell-out multiple nights in arenas in every major market in the US, but despite this, he had only four Top-Forty hits and only one Top-Ten hit. That was about to change. By January of 1986, Born in the U.S.A. had seven Top-Ten singles and had sold over ten-million copies in the US alone. Up to that point, only Michael Jackson's Thriller had accomplished such a feat and only one album since. Besides the album hitting the number-one slot, a more impressive feat was that it spent thirty-six straight weeks in the top-three, fifty-three weeks in the top-five and eighty-four weeks in the Top-Ten. Up to this point in his career, Springsteen had been extremely conscious of his image and how he was packaged and marketed. However, with the release of Born in the U.S.A. he loosened the reigns a bit and relished in its success.
Birthing Born in the U.S.A. proved to be an extended labor. The U.S.A. sessions began in the early part of 1982 and when they wrapped in the spring of 1984, over one-hundred songs had been recorded. Let me repeat that
not written, but one-hundred different and unique songs were recorded. The magic number of "100" is up to debate and whether or not it includes the Nebraska material is questionable, but regardless, Springsteen took two years to find the right twelve songs that incorporate Born in the U.S.A. Ironically, eight of the twelve final songs were recorded in a two-week sprint in the spring of 1982. Only one song from 1983 made the final cut ("My Hometown") and the final three ("No Surrender", "Bobby Jean" and "Dancing In The Dark") were cut in late 1983 and early 1984. The last one, "Dancing In The Dark" relied on a heavy synth melody, and rocketed to #2 on the charts (kept from the #1 spot by Prince's "When The Doves Cry"). Finding a track list proved to be nearly impossible and the entire band was asked to make lists, as was management. Ironically, one song that wound up on everyone's list "This Hard Land" was left off and wouldn't see an official release for over two-decades. In the end, Jon Landau concocted a track listing that may have been questionable and is debated to this day, but is hard to deny as it houses twelve near perfect compositions, all orgasmic spiritual pop epiphanies.
Noticed is served immediately as the album opens with the title-track, "Born in the U.S.A."; my vote for the single greatest recording the E Street Band ever committed to tape. It's so reverberating and conquering that everyone let the music pry their attention away from the lyrics. For years (and to this very day), it is mistaken for a patriotic anthem. It's a sacred song about how the Vietnam Veteran was forgotten about by everyone defending our liberties. These are individuals who gave not just their bodies, their dreams and their futures for us, but their psyches as well. The song originated from the original Nebraska tape from that cold January morning in 1982 (this version was released eventually on his box set Tracks in 1998). It wasn't deemed worthy enough for that album and was forgotten about by just about everyone, except Springsteen. He came into the recording studio one day with an idea for it and everyone was surprised as they had largely thought it was out of contention for not having a chorus that was strong enough. Taking their respective spots in the studio, the band tore through the song like a hurricane. Everything Springsteen and the E Street Band had been working towards since they started the Born To Run album in 1974, led to this moment. Four takes were made with minor variations, although the first one could have been used on record. The band transcended Springsteen's lyrics to heights no one imagined is a musically muscular manner. A quarter of a century later, I can feel the walls shake, a mean eye and the anger of a Vet emit forth by the musicianship. This was the E Street Band's most magnificent and supreme moment. Few songs roar of out speakers the way this one does.
"Cover Me" is aurally delightful with a rather incendiary guitar solo. The second of the Top-Ten hits from the album, originally written for Donna Summer, this was one Jon Landau fought for and won. "Darlington County" has a magnificent honky-tonk rhythm to it while "Working On The Highway" has a rapid two-fisted drum beat that elicits air drums at their finest. These three songs evoke many of the same themes Springsteen has covered before, but better on previous releases. The sonics may be a tad more luminous, hence their incalculable acceptance. I largely loved these songs initially but now find them to be weak links in Springsteen's songbook. Also, it doesn't help that I can think of about a dozen songs from these sessions that would have worked better; "Murder Incorporated", "This Hard Land", "My Love Won't Let You Down", "None But The Brave" and "Pink Cadillac" to name a few. Alas, if you ask one-hundred Springsteen fans to make their own U.S.A. track list, I can guarantee you that it no two lists would be alike.
"Downbound Train" is another song left over from the Nebraska sessions and this is another example of how the E Street Band can take a demo that I didn't feel that had potential but turned it into a provoking and gut-wrenching ballad. There same desperate atmosphere that matches the chilliness of Nebraska's best tunes can be found here, but it's lyrics are heightened by a lingering and mystical synthesizer that does as much for the song as any of the lyrics, especially this one; "I ran till I thought my chest would explode". "I'm On Fire" is another E Street treat finding the band in the most subtle of moods allowing the song to breathe. This was a song that easily could have been overproduced but its damn near perfect as Bruce's plain picking of his guitar, Weinberg's delicate rhythm paired with Roy Bittan's synthesizer creates an underlying sexual tension only hinted at in the lyric. The E Street Band made the tension a reality.
"No Surrender" should have been one of the album's singles. It's a tour de force delivery infused with a world of hope and determination. Springsteen's work always has an undercurrent of anguish, because that is what life entails. However, Steve Van Zandt convinced Springsteen otherwise. Rock n' roll doesn't always have to be brutally truthful. At times it has to be inspirational, buoyant and blazing. "No Surrender" makes one believe in the power of rock n' roll and its ability to heal the human spirit. "Bobby Jean" is an incandescent ode to friendship and a striking love letter to someone who has left. Springsteen fans have such an immense love/hate relationship with the song that it's difficult to write about. While I never need to see the song performed live ever again (it's been performed at over five-hundred concerts going back to 1984)
Now we went walking in the rain talking about the pain from the world we hid
Now there ain't nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did
Maybe you'll be out there on that road somewhere
In some bus or train traveling along
In some motel room there'll be a radio playing
And you'll hear me sing this song
Well if you do you'll know I'm thinking of you and all the miles in between
And I'm just calling one last time not to change your mind
But just to say I miss you baby, good luck goodbye, Bobby Jean
Memories shape our souls and friendships define who we become. We have all had to say goodbye to someone at some point in our lives. I often thought about an ex-girlfriend in college whom I am not even sure if she knew this song existed. But whenever I would drive around and this song popped up on a mix tape, I'd sometimes hold the tears back, because she would never understand or know how I felt about her. She couldn't be bothered and my love went unrequited. We all wonder if these people give us a second thought and if time has taught me anything, it's that age softens the heart and at somewhere down the line, they will think about you. Regardless of how I feel about this song today (often referred to as "Bobby F**king Jean" by the die-hards due to its constant inclusion in shows), I can't deny that it help mend my heart at some point in my life.
"I'm Goin' Down" was recorded in that initial batch of songs from 1982 and forgotten about until it was an eleventh hour replacement for "Pink Cadillac" (which was delegated to b-side status). This song became the sixth Top-Ten hit for the record. Despite its abundance of hooks and fist pumping chorus delivered with joyous conviction, Springsteen has said it is "the saddest song" he ever wrote. The narrator is head over heels in love with a girl, gives his all to her and despite this, he knows something is wrong; "I pull you close but when we kiss I can feel a doubt", he knows that their love is on the rocks and he longs for the time where he made her feel differently. "I remember back when we started, my kisses used to turn you inside out". This is a relationship headed for doom even amidst the garage rock innocence of the band's delivery. "Glory Days" is so drenched in nostalgia, that when you open the dictionary to this word, "Glory Days" should start blaring. That being said, it's hard to resist and is the songs my friends most want to see in concert after "Thunder Road".
"Dancing In The Dark" is the album's most maligned and most misunderstood song. The album was done when Jon Landau told Springsteen that the album needed a sure fire hit as the first single. Springsteen found this request anything but humorous. His attitude was "I've written one-hundred songs, if you want a hit, you write it". Despite his contempt, Springsteen went home that night and wrote a truly great isolation anthem. The shiny and bright tune is led by a hook and melody that is instant and memorable with a modern touch. The synthesizer that rules the song is immense, but as I listen to it twenty-five years after initially being recorded, it doesn't sounded dated to me, instead it's celebratory. Like many of the songs on Born in the U.S.A.", people let the music submerge the insightful lyrics. "Man I'm just tired and bored with myself, hey there baby, I could use just a little help". This is the same narrator who has appeared throughout all of Springsteen's work. In a different arrangement, this could have been a brooding ballad on The River or a tale of heartache on Nebraska in a more restrained arrangement, but it bursts through the door here on U.S.A. and it's one of Springsteen's finest lyrics. This character had previously been broken and defeated on earlier works, but here he is taking control of his life and acknowledging the mundane nature of his life. The lyrics of "You can't start a fire without a spark" and "I'll shake this world off my shoulders" finds Springsteen maturing and discovering that he alone can sometimes force the outcome of his life. In recent years, "Dancing In The Dark" has been redrawn as a raving and rocking anthem that holds no prisoners. No matter how many times I see it, it's hard to deny its doe-eyed sincerity and determined optimism.
Concluding the album is the nostalgic "My Hometown". Once again, Springsteen indulges his social commentary and draws from personal experience about memories of his hometown, the good and the bad. Race riots, closing of textile mills, lost souls who want to escape all make appearances however; it's the opening and closing verses that prove to be the most revealing. The song opens with the narrator as a child driving on his father's lap through the town and at the end; the narrator is thirty-five with a son of his own. The circle is complete.
While Born in the U.S.A. may be Springsteen's most popular and best selling record, by no means is it his best. There's two ways to look at the album; you can let the overt commercialism impact your opinion or look at the album as what it truly is; one of the greatest rock n' roll albums ever made. However, it's not necessarily one of Bruce Springsteen's best albums. I'm not saying that because of its success, it's just that while it's a deafening collection of anthems and the E Street Band is at their most robust and celebratory, it doesn't quite hold the same emotional weight of his earlier work. Alas, it's also one of the reasons it's so resounding and prevalent, Springsteen streamlined his work and made it more palatable. The characters inner vulnerabilities and heartache are camouflaged by exultant music. This isn't a titanic problem, but I still can't help but feel that the overall themes that lived inside each of Springsteen's first six records are missing here. Born in the U.S.A. is a buffet of styles and songs that rock out without common ground. However, in the end, sometimes rock n' roll is best served at its most rocking and resounding and Born in the U.S.A is the filet mignon of rock records, even if it's a collection of great songs rather than a collective thematic work of art.