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
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 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.