Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Album Review: "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen


Bruce Springsteen fascinates me. Why, exactly, I'm not sure. Maybe it's just because of his place in music history; he was hailed as a "savior of rock" in the mid-70's, but he wasn't a punk. He was certainly young enough to be one, and it could be argued that he was spiritually in the same league as, say, the Ramones or the Clash. But Springsteen has always been unique, and much more in love with 50's-styled rock and R'nB than he was with, say, the brutal nihilist rock of the Stooges and the MC5. I think what fascinates me about Springsteen more than that, though, is that his music is unabashedly romantic and uplifting; he has no qualms about putting his heart on the line in every song he writes, and to me, that attitude is exhilarating, especially considering that the cool thing nowadays is to be hip, self-aware and ironic. But hey, maybe that's not true, because for the past few years a surprising about of indie rock acts - a genre almost defined by self-awareness - have taken notes from Springsteen, both in good ways (Badly Drawn Boy, The Hold Steady, and the Arcade Fire, with whom he recently performed) and not-so-good ways (The Killers, The Killers, The Killers). I admire him in the same way I admire Neil Young; he's adapted deftly to changing musical trends over the years (punk, new wave, grunge, uh... crunk) without compromising his values, or becoming a withered old crank.

I guess that brings me to Born In The USA, maybe my favorite album by "The Boss" (and this will probably be the last time you see me calling him that). Then again, naming my favorite Bruce album is not easy. He's done a lot of good over his long and storied career. Before USA all I had was Born To Run, which I picked up about a week before I first left for college. At that point in my life the common trend was to pick up an album a week, usually by a different artist each week unless I really liked something (Bob Dylan being a notable example). Born To Run made a real impression, though; it was passionate, bombastic, and very pretty, and it certainly appealed to me at the time, leaving home for the first time and all. It was still a grower, though, because I didn't know much about Springsteen and I was kinda moving on from the whole "classic rock" thing. It took me a good year-and-a-half of Britpop and punk before I decided to listen to his other "Big Album", Born In The USA. Probably too long of a gap, but it was worth it. If Born To Run sparked a newfound respect for Springsteen, USA is really what got me to embrace his entire catalog.

I love Born In The USA because it's filled with a bunch of immediate, catchy, energetic songs, draped in Bruce's great lyrics and playful humor and driven by the always-wonderful E Street Band at the top of their game. In hindsight, after listening to more of Bruce's other albums before this one, I can appreciate the album in a deeper way. Springsteen does a great job of adapting his tried-and-true lyrical and musical themes, condensing them all into snappy pop songs, and delivering them with inimitable gusto. The title track is infamous, ruthlessly addressing Springsteen's anti-war stance while dressed up with a fist-pumping chorus and synths; "Working on the Highway" focuses on his sympathy-for-the-working-man perspective; "I'm Goin' Down" chronicles a relationship gone sour; "Glory Days" laments the death of youth; "My Hometown" continues his long and troubled relationship with Asbury Park. The big difference between these songs and almost everything else he'd recorded up to this point, however, is that they're fun pop songs. After Springsteen epitomized his dreamy-optimistic phase with Born to Run, he set out to dispel the same over-idealistic myths of youth he himself created; albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and especially Nebraska go out of their way to recast Springsteen's characters as sad, repressed people, forced into working themselves to death, raising families, and getting nothing in return. Born In The USA covers these themes as well, but instead of saying "I got my girlfriend pregnant, my life is over," this one says "Life is rough - fuck it, let's dance!"

Of course, it's not to say that Springsteen never embraced fun and good humor before - Greetings from Asbury Park, The E Street Shuffle, and even The River have plenty of it, and his live shows were always a blast. But he'd never released an album with the sheer pulse of USA, an album that bursts right out of the gate and never lets up. "Born In The USA" leads to the disco-rock-stomp of "Cover Me," which leads to the country-rock-hoedown of "Darlington County" and onto the boogie of "Working on the Highway." The only downtime the album has is in "Downbound Train" and "I'm On Fire", both placed conveniently in the middle of the track listing. Both are slow songs, but even they have kind of a choppy, quick backbeat to them. After those two, the wonderful "No Surrender" kicks into your head, and it's a blast from then on out. The album's structure really is wonderful - once you hear one song you love, you'll almost be forced to listen to the songs after them, just from listening to the opening riff of the song. At least, that's the case with me; "Bobby Jean" is my favorite song on the album, but I can never listen to it alone - when "I'm Goin' Down" and "Glory Days" chime in, I can't resist. It's on this album that Springsteen puts the most emphasis on simple, catchy musical riffs, whether they be on guitar or keyboard or saxophone or whatever, and it's a joy to listen to. In his entire career I don't think that Springsteen has crafted an album more direct, fun, and addictive than this one. The closest he ever came to this kind of sound beforehand was The River, which was actually intended to be a single-LP called The Ties That Bind before he decided that the album was "too poppy" and added a bunch of slower, more depressing songs to counterbalance the fun goodtime rockin' tunes. Even if he did release the poppier songs from that album on their own, though, it still wouldn't match the glorious pop wonder of USA.

But you know what, fuck Springsteen's history. I barely knew much about Springsteen before I listened to this album, and what I really love about USA is the songs. "Working on the Highway" is a total joy, maybe the quickest little ditty Springsteen ever wrote and quite possibly the bounciest song ever written about grueling manual labor. "I'm Goin' Down" is a funny, funny take on a dying love, with Springsteen complaining that "Lately girl you get your kicks from just dragging me down." "Glory Days" is even better, telling the story of a bunch of middle-aged friends reminiscing on lost and forgotten youth. It's a real victory for Springsteen; what could have become a stark, embittered song is instead invigorating and funny: "When she feels like crying, she starts laughing, thinkin' bout Glory Days," he sings, a lyric which may well define the theme of the entire album. It doesn't hurt that the song is propelled by a wonderful, wonderful (wonderful) keyboard riff that I would like to learn how to play on a Casio keyboard and annoy people with all the time. And then there's "Bobby Jean". Ugh, god. I love this song to death, and it's my favorite on the album. Lyrically, it's basically an adaptation of Born To Run's "Backstreets," chronicling a narrator who's upset at the loss of a close friend. But where "Backstreets" is angry, desperate and forceful, "Bobby Jean" plays more like a loving tribute, condensed into a beautiful, simple arrangement based around a stately piano riff. Here Springsteen isn't bitter; instead, he just wants to say one last goodbye. Also like "Backstreets", the song features an ambiguous subject of the narrator's affection (only made more explicit with a name like "Bobby Jean"), so it's never clear whether Springsteen is referring to a romantic relationship or a strong, platonic friendship. The difference between the two songs is obvious, though; to put it bluntly, where "Backstreets" ends with "I hated him, and I hated you when you went away," "Bobby Jean" ends with "I'm just calling one last time, not to change your mind / But just to say I miss you, baby / Good luck, goodbye." Beautiful song.

But hey, there's lots of other great songs on this album! Like every other song, for instance! "Cover Me" is uncharacteristic of Springsteen in that it's a hard-rock-dance kind of song, filled with fierce guitar parts and a simple, almost disco-y beat. It's a cool song. "Darlington County" is a great kinda-sorta-countryish romp, with an addictive guitar riff and a great "Sha la la la la la" chanting near the end. "Dancing in the Dark," a huge hit at the time, is not one of my favorites on the album, but it's still pretty great and deserves its radio airplay. "No Surrender" kicks ass and is one of Bruce's best anthems. "Downbound Train" is one of the darkest songs on the album, but it's got a cool backbeat that keeps it afloat and it's evidence that Bruce never really abandoned his experimental tendencies after Nebraska. "I'm On Fire" is lovely, but the closer "My Hometown" is even better, a sad rumination on what I assume is Asbury Park, but it could be about anybody going back to the place where they grew up only to find it in shambles; it kind of puts to rest Springsteen's concerns about his place of upbringing expressed in songs like "Thunder Road" or "4th of July," repeating the line "This is your hometown." There really are no low points on this album. It's a triumph.

It's unfortunate, because nowadays Born In The USA isn't quite as well-respected by modern listeners as much as the albums before it, especially by the hardcore Springsteen faithful. The Onion A.V. Club recently posted a primer to Springsteen's career, and while it's excellent, it barely mentions USA, not even making room for it in their "Essential 5" albums. Entertainment Weekly claimed that Bruce's new album Magic is his "best album since The River," which seemed a little below-the-belt to me (although I do enjoy Magic). Maybe it's due to the stigma associated with 80's pop music; Springsteen designed this album to appeal to mainstream pop listeners at that time, and it shows, with him frequently implementing synth keyboards into most of the songs, especially "Dancing In The Dark." It was also a massive hit, the biggest in Springsteen's career, spawning a whopping seven Top 10 hit singles and turning Bruce into a megastar. But I don't think the subtle backlash against the album is warranted; in my eyes, mainstream rock deserved Springsteen, an artist who could take popular trends of the time and make them his own. To put things in context, the two biggest albums of 1984 were USA and Prince's Purple Rain, both great albums and both of which topped the Pazz and Jop Critics Poll in the Village Voice for that year. It's proof that commercial pop albums can be excessively popular without being dumbed down for mass-market consumption. This is by no means a "sell out" album.

I don't know. There's nothing else I can say; I love this album and I wish everybody else did too. If you have an iota of interest in Springsteen, don't let anybody deny you this album. In my opinion, it's some of the best pop music ever made, and it deserves all the praise and sales it can get.

Also Bruce's ass is on the cover. Ladies.

(A little side-note: Mark Prindle wrote a Born In The USA review that echoes my sentiments exactly, just in a much more succinct way. You might just want to read his review. Hell, read all his reviews. He's great.)

2 comments:

Adam said...

Not only is Bruce's ass on the cover but HE'S ALSO PISSING ON THE FLAG! OH MAN CHECK THAT SHIT OUT

I've yet to hear "Born in the U.S.A." Truth be told, I've been apprehensive to pick it up just because of the whole '80s vibe, which as you pointed out, seems to be why it's been getting a bad rap lately. Still, it's hard to find a negative review of the album altogether. I'll check it out soon and let you know what I've been missing out on.

Funny how you got "Born to Run" before you went off to college. I was on a massive Springsteen kick last summer and my mom pointed out that they were the exact same albums she listened to when she graduated high school. But naturally it makes sense since all his early stuff is about reckless youths and whatnot. Yeah, useless observation, sorry about that.

The Hold Steady are a good band too. Glad you mentioned them here. They pretty much did everything the Killers tried to do and failed at doing in regards to evoking those sorts of Springsteenian emotions in their music. I might've just made up a word.

Big said...

jesus christ...if i wanted to read a dissertation i'd do what you do on a saturday night and head to the library...NERD

but seriously...merry christmas