"Three Flags", by Jasper Johns

“Three Flags” / Jasper Johns

Campaigning for re-election in 1984, Ronald Reagan riled up a crowd in New Jersey by blasting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song which sounds like a latter-day national anthem but which actually takes a critical stance on the Vietnam War and the state of American society left in its wake. A tension in the song creates some understandable confusion, even today: its energetic beat and radio-readiness strongly contrasts with the deeply ironic, bitter tone of its lyrics. To a casual listener—or to a seventy-three year old president trying to keep up with younger voters—the song gushes American pride. In truth it speaks of a country in turmoil.

Born in the U.S.A. (the 1984 album on which the song appears) faces a similar tension between music and lyrics. Each song resonates at the same decibel level, amplified by the full range of the E Street Band’s instrumentation. As such, it stands starkly opposite 1982’s Nebraska, whose bleak, brooding acoustic sound compliments varied tales of hardship and desolation. Born in the U.S.A. was much more popular at its release: each of its seven singles reached the Billboard Top 10 and it sold 30 million copies worldwide. With 1975’s Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen had announced himself; with Born in the U.S.A., he became a superstar. Thirty years later, a dozen Americana, country, and folk groups have reconsidered the relationship between Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.. In Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A., they have stripped the album to its essence and extracted new meaning from it.

I was initially hesitant of Dead Man’s Town. When twelve singers announced that Bruce Springsteen might have misrepresented the tone of his most successful album, I wondered at these young artists’ arrogance. For the most part, however, the producers of Dead Man’s Town are successful in bringing out narratives previously drowned out by the album’s blaring rock ‘n’ roll. Born in the U.S.A. certainly would have sold fewer copies if it sounded like Nebraska, but both albums tell similar stories: blue-collar workers engaged in daily struggles for survival and meaning, Vietnam vets making their way back into society, men trying desperately (and, for the most part, unsuccessfully) to win back their lost loves. These stories are why Springsteen’s pieces continue to hold meaning for people today, and why they will likely stay relevant for a long while. His America is gritty, unfulfilled, yet resiliently hopeful. And the tales in Born in the U.S.A. are as emotionally detailed as Born to Run and Nebraska, its poetry as tender, its characters as flawed and worthy of redemption.

Take “Downbound Train,” the fifth song on the album. It tells of an unfortunate figure shuffling from job to job, trying to recover an old lover. Like many of Springsteen’s early protagonists, he is relentlessly confronted by his own fate, and asks at the end of each stanza:

“Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?” Joe Pug, translating the song for Dead Man’s Town, replaces the electric guitar and synth from the original with a simple piano riff and sparse harmonica. The full percussion is similarly traded for a muted drumbeat, giving the song a subtle urgency that builds into the tragic final scene: “I rushed through the yard, I burst through the front door/My head pounding hard, up the stairs I climbed/ The room was dark, our bed was empty/ Then I heard that long whistle whine/ And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried.”

Born in the U.S.A. is filled with such stories. Like “Downbound Train,” several songs tell of young lovers confronted by harsh realities around them. “I’m Goin’ Down,” for example, ends with the realization that “you used to love to drive me wild/ But lately girl you get your kicks from just driving me down.” And in “No Surrender,” Springsteen writes: “you say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes and follow your dreams down.” Nonetheless, a quiet optimism persists throughout the album. The protagonist in “Working on the Highway” proclaims that “someday, mister, I’m gonna lead a better life than this,” and the chorus for “No Surrender” affirms “a promise we swore we’d always remember/ No retreat, baby, no surrender.” By removing the frills and musical fashions of the mid-80s, the artists on Dead Man’s Town have not so much reinvented the songs as revealed them. The songs tell complex narratives, and often a simpler musicality works better to expose those narratives.

A definite highlight of the album is the new rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the song that inspired the whole project. As Jason Isbell, who sings it for Dead Man’s Town with Amanda Shires, divulges: “‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is one of my favorites because so many people have seemingly misunderstood the lyrical content and the song’s overall tone. When you listen to the demo, the dark, minor key arrangement makes it clear that this is not strictly a song of celebration.” And Shires affirms: “I love that the song paints a picture of struggle in the face of the American dream.” Listening to their stripped-down version draws fresh attention to the lyrics, which are much angrier than I had previously remembered. The song is peppered with violence and war (“You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much”); mistreatment of veterans (“Come back home to the refinery/ Hiring man says, ‘son if it was up to me’/ Went down to see my V.A. man/ He said, ‘son, don’t you understand now’”); and helplessness (“I’m ten years burning down the road/ Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”). After listening to Isbell and Shires’ version, I revisited the original with a new appreciation of the lyrics in tow. I saw then the virtues of Springsteen’s musical decisions: his screeches confirm the lyrics, and the militant pulse of the drums puts the listener on edge. In “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen aims at a wider target, and his political commentary becomes more well-defined.

The titular song, then, gives fresh insight into Springsteen’s decision to exchange Nebraska’s sound for something louder and more urgent: in expanding the scope of his commentary on the state of American society, he sought to establish a more accessible aesthetic. Setting darkly themed songs to music befitting much lighter lyrics allowed him to do just that. Whether this decision was successful is up to the listener: at the very least, Dead Man’s Town has revived the debate. The new album serves—to great success—a limited goal: to raise from obscurity previously unconsidered songs of Born in the U.S.A. and to confirm again Bruce Springsteen’s undeniable knack for storytelling. The artists of Dead Man’s Town have unlocked a fresh set of earthy, forceful tales of struggle and resilience to add to Springsteen’s long list of contributions made over the past forty years.