Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part VII: Born in the U.S.A.

Well we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record, baby
Than we'd ever learned in school
Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I can feel my heart begin to pound
You say you're tired and you just want to close your eyes
And follow your dreams down

Have there ever been two records, side by side in an artist's catalog, more different than Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.? One is a sparse set of acoustic tunes, recorded in his bedroom on a 4-track; the other is his pop masterpiece, a heavily produced set of songs, drenched in 80s synthesizers, that today proves to be his most divisive work. Before 1984, Springsteen had released six records containing a grand total of ONE top ten hit: The River's "Hungry Heart." To put that in perspective, Born in the U.S.A. spawned seven massive top ten singles (a record that he shares in a three way tie with Michael and Janet Jackson. Looking at the list of singles right now ("Dancing in the Dark," "Cover Me," "Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down," and "My Hometown," in that order), I'm struck by the thought that Springsteen and Columbia could have probably scored at least one more hit, if not two, as the best songs on this record never saw the light of day as singles (we'll get to that in a minute).

Considering how vastly different Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. are from each other as far as sound is concerned (were Bruce a less iconic artist, you could be forgiven if you thought they were made by two different artists), it's worth noting that the latter was essentially born out of the same style that beget the former. Bruce opens the record with the title track, a song that had been misunderstood for decades and continues to be ignorantly judged to this day. The song is probably best known for the infamous moment when Ronald Reagan tried to adopt it as his re-election campaign theme, an occurrence that was laughably ironic for two reasons: the first was that Springsteen has always been a dead-set liberal and never would have endorsed Reagan under any circumstance. The second was that  the song, which is so often viewed as some fist pumping patriotic anthem, is an anti-war, anti-governmental tirade from the point of view of a disgruntled Vietnam vet. The character in this song returns from the futility of that war to find that his life been broken and beyond repair ("Ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go," Springsteen shouts at the song's key moment). For years, I thought the song was cheesy and repetitive, and just like so many others, I misinterpreted it. I can still remember the day, in the spring of my senior year in high school, when I finally gave this record and this song another chance. As I drove through my hometown and really listened to the lyrics, to Springsteen's voice as he sang them, my opinion of the song transformed instantaneously. Suddenly, amidst the shimmering synth riff and the muscular majesty of the E-Street sound, I heard all of the anger and anguish in Springsteen's voice and I finally understood what he was trying to say: it's still among my favorite Springsteen songs, something that would become even more evident when I saw him live for the first time 8 months later. The song grew out of an acoustic version of it originally meant for the Nebraska sessions, but it's doubtful anyone could have imagined it turning into the song it did (other than perhaps Springsteen himself). The other Nebraska leftover, the somber "Downbound Train," is probably one of the record's weaker tracks, but gives us an idea of what that record would have sounded like with the full force of The E-Street Band behind it.

Speaking of the album's weaker tracks, I don't think Born in the U.S.A. ascends to masterpiece status until about halfway through, leaving side one, despite the presence of the title track, to be one of the weaker parts of the first eight Springsteen records. The central trio of songs on side one - "Cover Me," "Darlington County," and "Working on the Highway" - have always been what keeps this record from perfection in my eyes, despite the fact that none of them are even remotely poor. "Cover Me" is a driving rocker marked by one of Springsteen's most scorching guitar solos, while "Darlington" and "Working on the Highway" each have a kind of honky-tonk drive that landed somewhere between Springsteen's trademark heartland rock and country: both are pleasant enough as singalong songs, though I understand why some have found the latter's rapid fire chorus a bit grating. As side one closes out, Born in the U.S.A. transforms into one of the best nighttime records I've ever heard, a seamless transition with the haunting "I'm on Fire" leading the charge. The song, told from the point of view of a man who is having an affair with another man's wife, is one of the most unique moments in the Springsteen catalog: drummer Max Weinberg supplies a train-like rhythm, mixing with a rain of synths and Bruce's exposed guitar line to create a song that is both strikingly atmospheric and definitively '80s. Lines like "At night I wake up with my sheets soaking wet/And a freight train running through the middle of my head/Only you can cool my desire," as well as Springsteen's like-a-man-possessed falsetto bridge, immediately transformed the song into a moment that was equal parts seductive and iconic: it's no mystery why the song has been covered time and time again by a myriad of modern artists.

"I'm on Fire" propels the record into side two, kicking off the strongest trio of songs on the record. "No Surrender" is arguably the greatest pop song Springsteen ever wrote, spinning off a trio of perfect verses (like the one above, which starts the song with one of my favorite lyric couplets ever recorded), and rockets through an infectious and anthemic chorus. "Bobby Jean," despite its infamy among fans (the song held a position of ubiquity in Springsteen shows following the release of this record, earning the scathing nickname of "Bobby fucking Jean"), is nearly as good. Springsteen wrote the song as a "good luck, goodbye" to guitarist and friend Steve van Zandt, who chose to leave the band around the time this record was recorded. Both songs radiate themes of deep friendship and nostalgia and, as a one-two punch, represent the emotional peak of a record that many have argued doesn't have the same emotional impact of Springsteen's best work. Two years ago, when my best friend moved away to NYC, it was "No Surrender" and "Bobby Jean" (and "Blood Brothers," a later song that also spoke of the palpable bonds between the members of the E-Street Band) that served as soundtrack. When I listen to this record, the warm nostalgic mood of those songs infects everything that surrounds them, transforming Born in the U.S.A. into one of the most personal records in the Springsteen catalog for me, and as a result, into one of my five or six favorites.

"I'm Goin' Down," despite a surging tempo and a poppy chorus, is among Springsteen's saddest break-up songs, told from the point of view of a man who is left shattered and confused when the woman he loves falls out of love with him. "Glory Days" offers another trip down memory lane, this time representing a conversation between Springsteen's narrator and his old friend, a guy who was a great baseball player back in high school, but who seems to have lost his way since. These characters pretty much peaked in high school, but the song still blazes along with a goodhearted nostalgia that's almost impossible not to relate to: we all have moments where we are humbled by the world around us, and in those moments, it's always a comfort to look back at the "good old days," even if it might be more logical to look towards to the future. These songs represent two of the more unlikely hits from this album for me, but released as the fifth and sixth singles, respectively, they also show what an unstoppable force the record had become by that time; Bruce would score yet another hit before the record finally faded away.

"Dancing in the Dark" is arguably Springsteen's biggest hit to date, and is probably the source of much of the bitterness this record receives from fans. While the song was the first single from the album and went to number two on the Billboard 100 (turning Springsteen into a pop icon almost overnight), it was also the last song written for the record. Legend has it that, by the time Born in the U.S.A. was finally taking shape, Springsteen had written over 100 songs for the project (numerous outtakes appear on the Tracks collection), but producer Jon Landau didn't think there was a surefire hit in the bunch and suggested that Bruce write another song. Bruce's bitterness at the request is palpable in the song's lyrics ("Man I'm just tired and bored with myself..."), and clearly there were more than enough hits in the collection already, but I can't imagine Born in the U.S.A. sounding complete without "Dancing in the Dark." There aren't a whole lot of hooks out there more indelible than this one ("You can't start a fire without a spark/This gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark"), but beneath the prominent synths and glorified '80s production, its still the same Springsteen who made those previous six records. "Dancing" may have brought Bruce to true mainstream prominence, but it did so without sacrificing any of his ideals or songwriting integrity, and that's why I love the song, even if there are a lot of fans who would probably prefer if he never played it again.

"My Hometown" carries Born in the U.S.A. out, both as the album closer and the seventh and final single. The song offers one last final nostalgic journey: a man puts his son on his lap as he drives through town, telling him to "take a good look around" and to take pride in the place. The boy grows up and his memories, both good and bad, are woven into the song's narrative until, in the final verse, he takes his own son for a similar drive. The song's elegiac texture paints the portrait of a town drowning in hard times, even as the memories of the better ones surround the narrator, and just as the song's tale comes full circle in the final verse, the album's story comes full circle here as well,  The characters in these songs have realized, in a line, what Springsteen put so eloquently nearly three decades later: that "hard times come, and hard times go, but just to come again;" they bask in the warmth of their memories for comfort, even as they realize that the "glory days" seem to evaporate far more quickly than the dark ones ever do. Still, these songs carry a resilience and hope that seemed absent on Nebraska: the darkness is still waiting out on the edge of town, but hope, happiness, glory, and most of all, friendship, can be found within it. Perhaps it's my own deep personal attachment to the record, or perhaps it's the layers of '80s pop sheen, but I've always found Born in the U.S.A. to be one of Springsteen's more comforting and uplifting records, even if its subject matter is significantly deeper and darker than that of many pop records from the same time. It's a record that will always go down as Springsteen's most popular (and indeed, as one of the most popular of all time), but in my eyes, removed from the era that spawned those seven massive singles, Born in the U.S.A. is just the next step in the evolution of Bruce Springsteen, as a songwriter, as a storyteller, and most of all, as "the Boss." I don't think anyone will ever be able to call it his best work, but with this record, Springsteen broke into the very center of the mainstream without sacrificing who he was or what he believed in, and that alone is worthy of renown.

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