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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Born In the U.S.A.

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10/10

Born in the U.S.A. should not work.  Its canned snare drum, heavy synthesizer use (sounds like I just accused this album of having a drug problem), and earnest vocals should crash and drag against my ears like a busted tailgate on the interstate. Somehow, not only does that not happen, but this album, twenty-eight(!) years later, sounds like a bonafide classic.
That previous sentence was strange to type. When The Beatle's Abbey Road was twenty-eight years old, I was old enough to drive. In some ways Born in the U.S.A. is better than that album.  The music, while fun, and timeless in it's datedness, is not timeless in the way Abbey Road's is. But on the other side of the token, Abbey Road is miles behind the stories and character portraits Bruce Springsteen sets to 80's pop-rock on Born in the U.S.A. I only compare these two albums to show how revolutionary Born in the U.S.A. truly is. (Yes, I'm going to write this review like a high school paper).
Thesis: Born in the U.S.A. became a classic album and contained a record number of hits (seven top ten singles) because it melded Springsteen's classic rock stylings with the pop sentiments of the day, but more importantly, because it layered them all on a foundation of true-to-life characters and lyrical voices.
The title track is case in point.  "Born in the U.S.A." sounds like some patriotic 80's American anthem, but the lyrics sing a different story.

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
Until you spend half your life just covering up
Man, that doesn't really sound like an uplifting "Go Team!" anthem. The song goes on to describe the life of a man born into tough breaks, who is quick into trouble, sent to Vietnam to fight, comes home to a jobless economy, and has no options. People who just like rousing anthems get a chorus they can nod their heads to. Thinkers get a story on which they can ruminate. Everybody wins. The ambiguity of the chorus is also a selling point--"I was born in the U.S.A" but is that a good or a bad thing?
In a way, this is the same cast of characters as Springsteen's previous albums, and side one of Born in the U.S.A. is basically a full-band continuation of Nebraska.  The second side has a more victorious feel, but it still seems like the same guys and girls, standing defiant now in the face of their trials.  The progression through the album works, and in my opinion, perfects Springsteen's "four-corners" approach, starting each side with an up-beat sounding track, and ending with a more low key one.  Side one ends with one of Bruce's best quiet songs, "On Fire," a haunting portrait of unrequited lust.  I covered this for my wife of five years way back when she was dating someone else.  I am awesome.

The second side closes with "My Hometown," about a man who has seen his place of birth go from idyllic to less than savory.  Still, true to the album, there is hope in the new life of the narrator's son, who sits on his father's lap in the family car and gets a tour of his town, just as the narrator's old man gave him.  It shows to Springsteen's new maturity that he could now think of things more important than running.  He is no longer born to perfom that action, but ready to stand up and fight in the place of his birth, proud of who he is even if he isn't happy about it. That strangely American attitude permeates Born In the U.S.A., and gives deep roots to the album's pop tendencies instead of a simple glossy sheen. This is where Born In the U.S.A. is revolutionary: when is the last time a pop album had subtext?
Conclusion: Born in the U.S.A. is an album of many talents.  While its sound should date it, it only adds to its endearing nature. Springsteen may have decided to make the biggest, most popular album he could make, but at this point his talent was so ripe, he couldn't fail in making a classic.  That's just what Born in the U.S.A. is.
A+
(Do they still give A+'s now, or did they ban them for making the other children feel bad?)

1984 Columbia
1. Born in the U.S.A. 4:39
2. Cover Me 3:26
3. Darlington County 4:48
4. Working on the Highway 3:11
5. Downbound Train 3:35
6. I'm on Fire 2:36
7. No Surrender 4:00
8. Bobby Jean 3:46
9. I'm Goin' Down 3:29
10. Glory Days 4:15
11. Dancing in the Dark 4:01
12. My Hometown 4:33

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