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Forty years on, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. retains its blistering relevance

"Born in the U.S.A. (40th Anniversary Edition)"

Release date: 14 June 2024
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17 June 2024, 18:00 Written by Ray Honeybourne

The supposed boom years of the American economy during much of Ronald Reagan’s time in office were urban-based and built, to a large extent, on finance and deregulation.

Bombastic Republican proclamations about making America great again by a media has-been in the White House impressed few objective observers, but the faithful duly re-elected their leader in November 1984’s election. Even for many who were materially better off than those of the previous generation, the levels of satisfaction with life and, particularly, work had declined considerably, as noted in Robert Putnam’s rigorous and definitive study, Bowling Alone, published in 2000.

Perhaps, therefore, it should not have been a surprise when Reagan, campaigning in New Jersey, felt the need to assert that “New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen” was expressing great pride in his country when singing of being “born in the U.S.A.”. Clearly, the President was completely ignorant of the song’s lyrics, but he was neither the first nor the last to fail to grasp the true subject matter. It has always been clear to those of us now old enough to have bought the album then, in 1984, and who actually paid attention to the words, that the song and the album represented a continuation, louder and more aggressive, certainly, but philosophically akin to 1982’s Nebraska, its immediate predecessor.

Forty years on from the original release of Born in the U.S.A., its evolution from Nebraska and its thematic connections with that record deserve greater recognition in 2024. (For an excellent, book-length account of the circumstances surrounding Nebraska, and its recording onto cassette tape through a basic four-track recorder, Warren Zanes’s fine recent Deliver Me from Nowhere is highly recommended.)

Many of the more locally-focused scenarios on Nebraska lead into more wide-angle depictions on Born in the U.S.A., with more dynamic rhythms and tempi, yet the personal and psychological concerns are not so different, and the affinity between, for instance, the central characters on the earlier album’s title track and on the later record’s “Downbound Train” is not hard to discern.

In one sense, what Born in the U.S.A. offers is the re-presentation of one kind of sound heard on The River together with the emotional intensity of the songwriting of Nebraska. Compositionally, The River is a great, though ragged affair, stylistically and thematically stretched beyond any convincing cohesiveness. With Nebraska, clearly the narrowing of perspective and the disappearance of production tensions over the balance between the ideals of studio polish and a live energy brought the attention more directly onto the narratives of the songs’ protagonists. Thus was set up the potential for Born in the U.S.A., an album that was a driven-band achievement forcefully conveying some of Springsteen’s most considered writing.

The title song from 1984 has Springsteen gutteral almost to the edge of hoarseness, as if choking on tears of rage in expressing the desperation of one who avoided prison incarceration by being packed off to Vietnam: “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand …”, and returning to a shrinking industrial landscape with correspondingly few prospects. The bleak unemployment scene and rifle reference are carry-overs from 1982’s “Johnny 99”: “They closed down the auto plant” in Omaha, leaving the central character in debt and threatened with re-possession. Arrested and brought to trial, he accurately observes, “But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

The long decline, from the 1950s, of the stockyards and the railroads brought massive job losses to Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, and this eroding of economic and emotional wellbeing spread throughout the country as traditional industries began huge layoffs. The importance of the human dimension in these states was still being acknowledged a decade after Born in the U.S.A. when the Counting Crows, on their debut album, pinpointed “Omaha, somewhere in middle America / Get right to the heart of matters. / It’s the heart that matters more.” It was this sentiment that Springsteen delivered, in very different ways, across two albums separated by two years, that are integrally related.

This fortieth anniversary edition is on translucent red vinyl, and is a decent pressing, with remastering by Bob Ludwig (who did the original) that is sensibly not obtrusive. A good booklet, with well-reproduced photographs from back then and a brief informative essay that includes some details of the recording process is included, and the package is in a very welcome robust gatefold sleeve. As we approach another American election, with the distinct prospect of a radically divisive figure taking over the White House, Springsteen’s 1984 album retains its blistering relevance.

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