When I wrote about Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 debut, I said it, “doesn’t really sound like the Bruce Springsteen who’s been a mega star my entire life.” And that it was, “a lot more concerned with melody and overall lighter touch.” Well, ten years and six albums later, he had become a legit star, but now it was time for his true ascension into the stratosphere. It was time to become the mega star he has been my entire life, with Born in the U.S.A.
The difference between this and his 1973 effort is in your face from the first notes of the opening, title track. An irresistibly infectious synth hook, and a drum sound so over produced that I’d believe it if someone told me Max Weinberg had been replaced by a Casio, this is commercial rock at its most commercial. So commercial in fact, the obvious anti war sentiment of Born in the U.S.A the song, has been ignored by dummies for the last three decades, adopting at is one of the most used patriotic anthems of flag waving right wingers.
The synthesizer might be put away for Cover Me, but the artificial sound is still there. The layers and layers of reverb slathered onto Springsteen’s guitar sound, and the piano and organ sound too almost perfect to be human. Bruce Springsteen is such a sincere, heart on his sleeve kind of performer that it’s impossible to take the passion out of his music. But I’ll be buggered if the too-slick production of Cover Me and Darlington County don’t do their best to best suck the life out every too-polished note.
What happened to sax solos? In the 80s, they were so prevalent, the chances of getting a sax solo were basically the same as getting a guitar solo. And Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons from the E-Street Band was probably the poster boy for the 80s sax solo. Well, Clemons and that dude from the boardwalk in The Lost Boys.
Downbound Train is great justification for everything I said above about the overblown production. This sound is still a little too slick for Springsteen’s raw kind of singing and song writing, but it’s so stripped back compared the songs before it, that Downbound Train immediately sounds a little more real. Immediately followed by a similar production restrain on I’m on Fire, they both stand out by doing so much more with less.
The biggest throwback to Asbury Park comes deep into the second half of Born in the U.S.A with Bobby Jean. It’s the most story like, the most like a reminiscence, the most street level America through the eyes of a street level troubadour. And for all of those reasons, it might be my favourite song on this album. I can’t deny that Born in the U.S.A is an amazing song, but I’ve heard it countless times in my life. Bobby Jean has freshness to my ears on its side, and I love that even in1984, it probably already sounded like a nostalgic throwback.
I don’t know if I’m imagining this, or of it actually is the case, but albums usually seem top heavy with hit singles popping up in the first half. So to have Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark come back to back, as Born in the U.S.A winds down to its end, was a bit of a surprise. What isn’t a surprise is the fact they were hits and that they’re still iconic today. They sound more like the self tilted opener than anything else here. The combination of Bruce’s working class voice, the guitar basis, supporting mountains of production, and of course, a synth hook. These three enduring hits really do work together as the perfect distillation of this entire album.
I can see why Born in the U.S.A was a massive hit in 1984 and why it’s still the definitive Bruce Springsteen album now. While the production is far from timeless, they’re of their time in the perfect way that they’ll always be a great snapshot of the time, never embarrassingly dated. But I also think it’s great that more recent Springsteen albums, like Wrecking Ball (2012) and High Hopes (2014) are more in the vein of Asbury Park. The massive sellers and earth shakers might be specific to one time, but the sounds that endure are obviously closer to Springsteen’s roots and closer to Springsteen’s heart.