Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen in the Reflecting Pool

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA – 1984

11 years in the making. Ladies and Gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen, megastar.

The 80s were a time for musical acts that blew up into the stratosphere. Michael Jackson. Madonna. Bruce.

It was the time when Reagan and his ilk tried to commandeer the title track on the merits of the uplifting, bombastic sound and the proto-anthem chrous, without giving one whit about what the song was about, which was in direct contrast to the sound. Did it matter that the deadbeat character, prone to violence, was sent to kill the vietnamese? Nope. He’s ‘merican. He’s a soldier. He was BORN IN THE U.S.A., motherfucker.

As timeless as The River sounds, as immediate while definitively “classic rock” as Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town are, Born in the USA, sounds of its time. It’s 80’s production, a stadium in the studio, with echoing drums and giant hall sounds, Born now sounds like a relic more than a classic.

Some of the songs don’t merit the overproduction. Like, “Glory Days”, for instance. And “I’m on Fire”. Wrapped up in the radio friendly sounds, the characters that populate these songs are not heroes.
But, those that do deserve the epic sound, like the title track, are a punch in the gut and a fist in the air.

The relationship is crumbling in “I’m Going Down”,  but because of the over the top production the song doesn’t have the oomph, the power of, say, “The River”.  I find myself tapping my feet during a song about a guy whose lover has left him. And the same with “Glory Days”. These people are looking at the past through the rosiness of what was once great. Only in the video when Bruce was playing catch with his “son” did you get the sense that there was hope or at least acceptance of his fate. The production, hoever, just makes it a good ol’s singalong. It’s the “Sherry Darling” of USA. And many of the other songs just sound like hollow sketches, like “Working on the Highway”. After a decade of fully realized characters and mindsets, this kind of track just feels like piffle. Like a “The River” leftover.

There’s some great stuff here, though. Like the wannabes in “Darlington County” and the reflective, nostalgic love note to youth in the rocking “No Surrender” (one of the most kick ass Side Two openers in Bruce’s career).

 Even the ode to his friendship with Steve Van Zandt, “Bobby Jean” is great fun.
And, if you can get past the weird, Cars like arrangement of “Cover Me”, it’s not bad. Really, though, it sounds like “Shake it Up”. With bigger drums. (And it suffers from 80s-ism. It’s over at 2:39 mark but goes one for another 40 seconds. This is actually an illness that much of the record suffers from. “Glory Days” being the most egregious offender)

It’s quite possible that my appreciate for USA is marred by how ubiquitous it was in 84-85. Just about every song was a single, deserved or not. I’m a big fan of the big hit, “Dancing in the Dark”. The production and arrangement ruin the song and it’s notorious that it was written because Landau didn’t think the album had a hit single, but that’s what it’s about: Writer’s block. Bruce had to write a song. But he ain’t got nothing to say. So he said that. And then Roy Bittan and the gang muscled up into something that flew up the charts. And it’s Bruce’s most blatantly confessional song, maybe ever.

Go figure. The 80s were weird, man.

If it sounds like I don’t like the album, that’s not true. I’m making the horrible mistake of reviewing the sound and not the mood or the songs. This album has punch. It resonates. It’s strong. And, where Nebraska hit the emotional nadir, USA has more in common with The River in that, even when he’s talking in the voice of a loser or the downtrodden, he has filled the album with either real hope or contrapuntal “hope”. Without the deep emotions of, say, “Independence Day”, “Point Blank” or “The River”, the album just can’t have that seminal timelessness. But, heck, it’s pretty damned good for the most part.

Grade: B+
ASide: Born in the USA, Darlington County, Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark
BlindSide: No Surrender, Bobby Jean
DownSide: Downbound Train, I’m on Fire

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