' ' Cinema Romantico: Born in the U.S.A.: Song by Song

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Born in the U.S.A.: Song by Song

If “Born in the U.S.A.” was Bruce Springsteen’s most successful album, in so far as hits and sales and mass market appeal, it was also perhaps his most divisive, at least among the Bruce-heads, the dividing line between him being merely a popular recording artist and an icon, when their Boss became Boss of the whole world while being co-opted by so many specious cultural and political forces. But those types of Bruce-heads bore me, and so does considering this album in a music-free context. Over the years, “Born in the U.S.A.” has settled as my third favorite Springsteen album (after “Tunnel of Love” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”). I know that in interviews Springsteen says the current iteration of The E Street band is the best it’s been but leaving aside whether you can even make such a statement when Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are no longer with us, and with all due respect, I disagree. I think “Born in the U.S.A.” is the best The E Street Band ever was, at least the classic version of The E Street Band, the record they had been building to for a decade and so much of it cut live without overdubs, leaving them the space to invent and to rock. There is an emotional directness to the music, underlined in Bruce writing in virtually nothing more than two or three chords, that I think is what innately appealed to people all over the world and that has, synthesizers be damned, and which have inevitably come back around to being cool again anyway, thank goodness, proved timeless. Here, then, to observe the album’s 40th, is one idiot’s song by song review.

(Click on the title to hear the song.)

Side 1

Born in the U.S.A. The greatest of all album openers, setting the template, Roy Bittan’s synth line and Max Weinberg’s drums (this is the best Max track in the Springsteen canon) are like a thunderous modern update on the drum and fife, infusing a sense of anthemic patriotism (patriot should not be a dirty word, as Bruce BFF and consigliere Steve Van Zandt likes to say, it’s just that word, too, has been co-opted by specious forces), holding holy the promise of America even as Bruce’s lyrics and vocal impassionedly call that promise into question, culminating in an astonishing howl of anger and desperation. That howl suggests a more drawn-out version of the howl on the desolate “State Trooper” from his preceding album “Nebraska,” one inspired by a similar scream from the punk band Suicide. And though Springsteen is sometimes written off as a cheeseball, especially the “Born in the U.S.A.” version of The Boss, that he smuggled an homage to the avant-garde Suicide onto the title track of one of the best-selling albums of all time, onto the song that clueless political candidates still, to this day, play at their rallies, is, quite frankly, more transgressive than many bands preening as transgressive could ever hope to achieve. 

Cover Me. Famously written by Bruce for Donna Summer, only to keep it for himself under advisement of his more commercial savvy manager Jon Landau, it makes sense, not just in the beat but in the words, seeking shelter from the storm though in this case the storm is not the noxious clouds of the 70s, of course, but Morning in America. In his hands, though, the gorgeous gleam of disco seeking to carry you up, up, and away gives way to a man falling to his knees, the wailing guitar and anguished vocal, one of Bruce’s best, turning a Top 10 hit into a three-and-a-half-minute cry of sheer terror. (I spent June listening almost exclusively to “Born in the U.S.A.” and the new Charli XCX record, but lemme tell ya, since last Friday, I have essentially played this song non-stop.)

Darlington County. On the other hand, love the songs when you can practically see Bruce smiling while he sings.

Working on the Highway. So much of the album is defined by the juxtaposition between gleeful music and grim lyrics and I think this one lives it the most. 

Downbound Train. “She just said Joe, “I gotta go” is awfully close to Lili Taylor singing “Joe lies when he cries” in “Say Anything.” But. Proving this is an E Street Band record, their music muscle lifts this song up and makes the occasionally basic rhymes fun to sing along to no matter their despondent nature. And the third verse, when the band pulls back and just leaves Roy’s synth and dollops of guitar and mandolin and we slip into the evocative dreamworld of Bruce’s character, seems in retrospect to point the way toward “Tunnel of Love.”

I’m on Fire. Love how this song has so much tension…and no release.

Side 2 

No Surrender. The cut that almost didn’t make the album because Bruce thought the message too naïve, because in life, as he said, “You compromise, you suffer defeat, you slip into life’s grey areas.” Thing is, I’ve always heard it the way Bruce doesn’t, the churning guitar heralding a defiance contrasted against the lyrics, triumphant on the surface but pulsing with an almost pitiful longing for the innocence of youth underneath. In the second verse when he sings “I’m ready to grow young again,” his voice almost breaks, and then, at the end of the verse, “Well maybe we could cut someplace of our own / with these drums and these guitars,” his voice does break. Oof. No Surrender? No such thing.

Bobby Jean. The preeminent argument for rock ‘n’ roll saxophone, Clarence’s solo at the end sends this goodbye from Bruce to bandmate and bestie Van Zandt riding misty-eyed into the sunset. Also, My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife’s favorite song on the record which makes it mean just that much more to me.

I’m Goin’ Down. My second favorite song on the record (after the title tune) because it is the quintessential E Street song. The way it is mixed, you can hear each individual part so distinctly and they all effortlessly comingle - the guitars, the bass, the drums, the piano, the organ, the hand claps (!) - with a jolt of a Clarence solo sandwiched right there in the middle. 

Glory Days. “There’s a joke here somewhere,” Bruce sings in the song after this one, “and it’s on me.” And that’s what “Glory Days” is. Because that’s what getting old is: life’s cruelest and funniest punchline. And that’s why the message is delivered under cover of such bar band exuberance (sponsored by Genesee); there’s nothing you can do but laugh.

Dancing in the Dark. The video did this one dirty. Strangely, the Courtney Cox part is the only part of it that really works, because at least it’s a manifestation of the spark that Bruce references, but everything preceding it is a travesty because Bruce’s omnipresent smile is counterintuitive to the lyrics and not with the revealing tension of the song itself. Like the lyrics say, it’s about hunger, it’s about starving for connection, flailing in lieu of emotionally drowning, all summarized in that recurring synth line, a melodic Zippo that just won’t ignite. Forget the video; the song, I swear, gets better every year.

My Hometown. We all know how this one goes, right? It starts with his dad proudly showing off his hometown to his son in the first verse, that town goes wrong in the middle verses, and in the last verse, the son, now a father, showing his son their hometown, the one they are now leaving, “heading south” in the hope of something better. And mirroring that change, in the final rendition of the chorus, Bruce changes “My hometown” to “Your hometown,” but rather than repeat “Your hometown” three times like the preceding choruses, he sings it only once, and then lets the song fade out, as if his hometown is dissolving, maybe in the rearview mirror as they drive away, maybe just in general. Imagine ending one of the biggest pop records of all time that way. Of course, you don’t have to, because Bruce did. 

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