Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published November 6th 2019
Success sometimes does mean it's the best
It's been a little while since I've looked at a classic album, so I thought I'd face one of the elephants in the room. I have reviewed two Springsteen albums – On Broadway and Western Stars – here on WeekendNotes, and have mentioned him in other articles. I am something of a fan of the man. And yet, it has only been in the past month or so that I have received a few DMs on Twitter asking when I was going to tackle the work most people of my generation have come to associate with the Boss? Well, that time is now.
I present to you Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen (1984).
In the mid-1980s, this album was everywhere. Between this, Thriller by Michael Jackson, Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms and Reckless by Bryan Adams, you would have thought at first glance that only four albums were actually released in that period. They dominated everything everywhere.
The reason is actually quite simple – the songs were so good that they still stand up today as bonafide classics. In fact, this album was one of the few that my sister and I agreed was a good one at the time. Our tastes were quite different from one another at the time, but Springsteen was a leveller. It was also released at a time when singles were thrown out there like peanuts at an elephant. From 1984 to 1985, seven songs were released as singles from this album. Seven! To put that into perspective, Jackson also released seven singles off Thriller, six came from Reckless and five from Brothers In Arms. It was just what happened back then, I guess (I was thirteen in 1984; it's not like I was keeping abreast of the business side of music).
Anyway, the album. Twelve songs. No filler. Let's hit it.
'Born in the U.S.A.' We open side one (I had this on vinyl originally, so, yes, we're back to sides) with the title track. This is one of the great protest songs of the 80s, all hidden underneath a stadium rock bombast. Misused by Reagan at the time, and then, ridiculously, by Donald Trump 30 years later, it is a song that requires careful listening to the lyrics. (The stripped-back version from Tracks makes it's meaning far more obvious.) But, despite that, it is a great song. It has something to say and yet it is also a song that you could just scream along to. "Boooooorn in the U.S.A…" indeed.
'Cover Me' This is about as standard love song as you get from Springsteen – he wants some-one to "come on in and cover me…". Originally written for someone else (I've read Donna Summer, but don't know), he apparently liked it so much he kept it. It's a straight forward song but is not the lesser for that. The thing is, the way it's sung, it almost feels like this is a love of last resort. Sometimes delivery can add a layer to the lyrics.
'Darlington County' A song that tells a story about some guys going for a drive to find work, picking up a girl, and one getting arrested. Strange little tale, and the song is annoyingly catchy. Those "Sha-la-la…"s are definite ear-worms…
'Working On The Highway' Another song that tells a story! The problem is, like the title track, what is actually quite dark is couched in an upbeat musical format. A guy is working laying the blacktop on the highway, meets a girl, ruins off with her, turns out she could well be underaged, he goes to gaol, and ends up working on the highway laying blacktop in a prison chain gang. Dark lyrics; good song.
'Downbound Train' Another lyrically depressing song, a song without a chorus, about a man whose life spirals out of control after he loses his job. It's a good song, but the darkness completely takes this song over. And, I have to say, with some events in my own life, yes, "I feel like I'm a rider on a downbound train…"
'I'm On Fire' The shortest song on the album, clocking in at 2:40, and yet released as a single that did quite well. A guy wants a girl badly. Simple. But the song is a great piece of rock and it has the feel that something is not quite right about this relationship.
All right, that's the end of side one. I think I should point out that, for all its rock musicianship and the fact it is produced brilliantly, the lyrics of the songs on side one paint a very disturbing picture of the American Dream. While Springsteen had done this before and would do it again, putting these negativities about the country he clearly loves out there in a manner that so many found palatable is a testament to the songwriting genius that is Springsteen and maybe the fact that not enough people bother listening to the actual lyrics in music. On side one, it feels like only 'Cover Me' is completely positive in its spin, but even then, as I said, the way it's sung…
Springsteen is a master songwriter. People have said he was the next one to follow Dylan's path. I agree, but with this caveat – Springsteen's songs are more relatable and approachable. If Dylan can win awards for his songwriting, Springsteen should one day as well. While I love Dylan as a songwriter, I would put Springsteen up there with him, and would rank Springsteen much higher as a performer. Anyway, that's my take on the man. On to side two!
'No Surrender' This is one of my two favourite songs on the album. I love the lyrics, love the music and just think it is a classic. I also feel the live acoustic version he did is as good. In fact, there are some times when I think that version is better. It's that sort of song. And it is, at its core, a positive song – it is about friendship, growing up together and living together, chasing that dream (the American Dream, if you like). When I was in my first university degree (1989-ish), I rediscovered this song and it was always a source of keeping me grounded. I'd lost contact with so many of my old friends from high school, and this told me to keep the ones I had close. Of course, time does not always do what you want, and I have lost many of them as well as the years have gone on, but not for lack of trying.
'Bobby Jean' At the time of the album's release, this was not my favourite song, I'm afraid. It's saying goodbye to an old friend. At the time it was 'meh'. But now, thirty-five years on, it resonates with me. The friends I have lost recently – Troy, Chris, Leanne, Zen, Sara, and others – and the friends I lost way back when – Clare, Barbara, Sandi, Mel – have been playing on my mind a bit lately and listening to this song for this review, it brought a lump to my throat. Curse you, Bruce! Yes, songwriting at its finest. 35 years later and I finally get it…
(Apparently both of these songs were written in response to 'Miami' Steve Van Zandt leaving the E Street Band. It would turn out to be a temporary departure, but it clearly affected Bruce deeply.)
'I'm Going Down This is the only song on the album I am not a fan of. It's not the lyrics – which are about a guy sick of the way he's being treated by his partner – but it's just repetitive. It was released as a single and, I understand, did the worst of all singles released from the album.
'Glory Days' The other of my two favourite songs on the album. A song that celebrates nostalgia with a hint of regret, but not really coming from the narrator. I love the lyrics, and, as an old man, can see too much of myself in them (which is why I am trying to fulfil my own dreams and stop living in the past as much as I can). The simple, driving beat of the song, the well-written lyrics, everything about this track is just superb. And listen to the lyrics. They offer hope.
'Dancing in the Dark' This was a huge hit at the time, but I did not like the song. It was only many years later (I was probably in my 20s) when I actually came to appreciate it as a decent song, but it is still not my favourite. Interestingly, it is Springsteen's most successful single of his career. So my taste and that of the general public don't mesh. C'est la vie.
'My Hometown' And after the positivity of the second side of the album, we return to the bleakness that is the decaying American Dream with the final track. A guy looking back at the struggles in his home town – segregation-based fighting, jobs disappearing, and then maybe leaving. A downbeat way to end the album, but, despite that, a decent song. It brings the album full circle. And sometimes what we see is not what we want to see. There is, however, a spark of hope at the end, when the narrator tells his son that this is his hometown…
While this album is a piece of Americana, it could certainly apply just as easily to Australia and, according to one online friend, the UK as well. That is the glory of Springsteen – he writes as an American seeing the world through realistic eyes, but it can be translated to anywhere else without really a second thought.
As I said at the start, there is a reason this album is considered a classic and has become Springsteen's biggest seller to date – it is filled with good songs. Not just decent tracks or okay, but there are standout songs here that any other artist would have given their right hand to have created. This was not what drew me into Springsteen as a fan (that would be the song 'Born To Run', and then the album The River), and it was not what cemented me as a fan (that would be the album Live: 1975-85), but it certainly did not hurt my fandom.
If you have not heard this album, I recommend you give it a go. It truly is worth it.
"I spent most of my life as a musician measuring the distance between the American Dream and American reality." Bruce Springsteen (taken from a speech at a rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama on November 2, 2008)