In 1975, Born to Run was released, and it made Bruce Springsteen a house-hold name. In 1984, Born in the USA was released, and it made him a working-man heartthrob with a lot of great energy. Whereas his previous works had been longer and a little more epic with complicated musical arrangements and sometimes cryptic lyrics, in the mid-80s, Born in the USA marked a huge shift in direction. Springsteen and the talented E-Street Band were making relevant pop/rock music with shorter running times and catchy hooks.
Bruce has always been an amazing songwriter, as beautifully presented on his 1975 masterpiece, as well as on Darkness on the Edge of Town, but on this record, the idea of a narrator is very much in the background. Instead, the songs have that 80s twist, and in the 1980s, people weren't interested in epic anymore; they wanted something accessible. As incredible as the bulk of these songs are, it starts out on a really soul note for me. Born in the USA is annoying. Simply stated. I was very glad that he rarely performs the song, because it's just cheesy, and the production is flat. Bruce considers this album the only time the group wasn't taken seriously, and that's no surprise with the dated-sound of this song. But, as obnoxious as our opener is, it's followed up with the best song on the whole album. Cover Me is by far the sexiest Bruce song he's ever recorded. This pumping rock/dance track has an urgent beat with a wailing guitar backing, while Bruce almost begs for his lover to "shut the door and cover me." Sexuality on this record is very much subdued, and when discussed, it's all about frustration. His vocals on this song are very fresh, very sassy, very sexy. And above that, the entire song is comprised of 1,000 different hooks. Possibly my personal favorite of his entire career.
I'm On Fire is another subdued-sexual song about frustration. This time, it's slow and minimal, with just a soft hand-clapping beat and synthesizer playing (yes, synth on a Bruce LP-- it works). Though it's rare explicit at times-- Hey, little girl, is your daddy home? Did he go away and leave you all alone? I've got a bad desire. Oh oh oh, I'm on fire-- it's done with dignity. In fact, he almost sounds like he's ashamed of himself. It's the type of feeling that you get where you look very, very calm and still-- but you could break a glass with your hand and not feel a thing.
Seven singles were released from this monster of an album. Dancing in the Dark is another of my personal favorites, and it was the lead-off single. This was the synth-based song that marked a significant change in the Springsteen sound. The song's lyrics are wildly clever, and take that frustration and inner-conflict to a whole new level. And, at that, this song makes it sound just downright fun! You can't start a fire. You can't start a fire without a spark-- this gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark. I've never read the book that explains his entire catalogue (it does exist). Instead, I like to make up my own meaning, and this song just instantly reminds me of a darker time in my own life-- this song is like the right spoonful of medicine.
I'm Going Down is such an ignored song, and that's disturbing. I was lucky enough to hear it when I saw him at Gillette Stadium-- it was an encore--, but it was one of the few times he's performed it since the 1980s. Same terrible treatment was given to Cover Me. This song is so Bruce it's not even funny. It's got that classic, all-American rock sound with his husky, masculine voice singing really smart lyrics: I go to put my arm around ya, but then ya, give me a look-a like I'm way out of bounds. Bobby Jean is one of those songs that I heard once and refused to listen to for months. Not because it's bad, though-- it's actually got a great melody and hook. That said, it's written as if this man has died, and it's instantly sad. I later learned that it was about a member of his band leaving-- not about passing away. Unless you know that, this song is just as sad as Bruce's eulogy song Terry's Song on 2007's Magic.
And of course we get the fun Glory Days and No Surrender (we learn a lot more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school) and the bittersweet My Hometown. Both are good. What a surprise. But I can't let this album off scot-free, because there is some mediocre stuff here. There's a trio of crap that starts with track three and goes until I'm on Fire begins. Darlington County, Working on the Highway, and Downbound Train are some of my least favorite Springsteen songs of all time. It's really no shock these songs were not singles, because if they aren't being generic 80s, then they are just being embarrassing. Working sounds like a bad Men At Work B-Side ala Helpless Automaton (from Business as Usual), and Darlington County is just a cheesy mess. Had Bruce left these three songs off the record, I'd be able to say this is a perfect album.
That said, these 4/12 songs don't specifically take away from the overall quality of this record. The other 8 songs are all masterpieces, and this album deserves 4.5/5 stars. As I can't do half-stars on Epinions, I'm rounding up, because it just deserves it.
Born in the USA
Working on the Highway
I'm On Fire
I'm Goin' Down
Dancing in the Dark