Jul 082019

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

dead mans town

Did you hear “Born in the U.S.A.” at your Fourth of July BBQ? Maybe a diehard Springsteen fan even played the full album. It certainly packs a punch; seven of the album’s twelve songs became top-10 hit singles. Taking patriotism to a whole new level, this album was even the first commercial CD made in the United States. 

Marking the 30th anniversary of the Born in the U.S.A. album, Dead Man’s Town was released in 2014 with the premise that the original album was so good that, as Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars states, “any of those songs could be played with acoustic guitar alone and still be great.”

Rolling Stone described the album as “reimagining Born in the U.S.A.… with a reduced approach more influenced by that of the acoustic Nebraska.” This cover album certainly would have followed Nebraska more congruously than the original Born in the U.S.A., which marked a departure from Springsteen’s earlier work yet brought him his greatest commercial success.

Dead Man’s Town captures the melancholy aspects of the Fourth of July, a holiday that marks the inflection point of the summer. Summer love is bending towards goodbye. Back to school advertisements abound. If you are looking for a soundtrack to summer’s end or a new take on your favorite Springsteen classics, this is the album for you. Here is a taste of what this album has to offer.

Nicole Atkins – Dancing in the Dark (Bruce Springsteen cover)

When I heard “Dancing in the Dark” from Springsteen on Broadway, I realized how pensive the lyrics actually are. It made me think about the song in a completely different way, and honestly, the slower version has replaced the original on every one of my playlists featuring The Boss. Nicole Atkins’s version has me feeling the same way. 

By slowing the tune down and starting with just vocals and a simple beat, Atkins allows the listener to focus on the lyrics without the distraction of the synthesizer or Springsteen’s music video gesticulating. The measured piano interludes and Atkins’ occasional whispers add to the sense of longing. The lyric that really speaks to me in its stripped down state is “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart.” In its simplicity, this version allows the emotion to build so that the changes in the followup to “you can’t start a fire” are poignant rather than just an afterthought as the song wraps up.

Low – I’m on Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)

“I’m on Fire” is another song that benefits from being slowed down and cut of inessential frill. The soft and deep vocals paired with the simple baritone guitar and judicious piano produce a slow burn effect. In the original, the music has already built up, distracting from the most evocative line “sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul.” Here the lyrics are sung so softly that we lean in to hear this powerful line. Ethereal background vocals close out this cover and leave you with plenty of feelings. It’s a somber take on Springsteen that cuts deep.

Trampled by Turtles – I’m Goin’ Down  (Bruce Springsteen cover)

This album is not just about slowing Springsteen songs down and going acoustic. It is also about introducing country vibes to songs that are often associated with blue-collar suburban life. Yes, the lyrics are rooted in blue collar struggles, but rural areas face many of these same troubles despite their greater distance from New York City, the Mecca for those “born to run.” In fact, Springsteen’s latest album Western Stars is making this country connection. Dead Man’s Town did it first. 

Ditching the electric guitar and heavy percussion, Trampled by Turtles introduces mandolin, fiddle, and banjo to “I’m Goin’ Down.” They get a chance to show off in an instrumental break originally reserved for the saxophone. The band’s subtle harmonies contrast Springsteen’s more gravelly solo voice. We can hear the sense of longing, a feeling that the backbeat in the original often overshadows, in lines like “I pull you close now baby but when we kiss I can feel a doubt.” If you like your Springsteen with some country flair, check out Holly Williams’s “No Surrender” on this cover album as well. 

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – Born in the U.S.A.  (Bruce Springsteen cover)

Of course we have to talk about the title track “Born in the U.S.A.” The artists explain their vision for the cover.

Isbell said:

“‘Born In The USA’ 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. We wanted to stay true to that version.”

The undertones of the original also influenced Shires, who said:

“I love that the song paints a picture of struggle in the face of the American dream, and the irony in the chorus is delivered with such force that it nearly transcends irony altogether.”

This cover starts with a crisp violin and some acoustic guitar strumming. Throughout, the call and response between the vocals and the violin emphasize the artists’ interpretation. Isbell stresses the roughness and edginess of the lyrics, while Shires’ violin licks are pure yet cutting. The listener gets a sense for the darker side of the song. The solemn style contrasts the original version’s powerful, angry, and almost screamed delivery. The mood of this version captures the complicated feelings of identifying as an American, longing for home yet yearning to escape.

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  2 Responses to “Cover Classics: Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.”

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  1. Many of Bruce’s songs are better in the hands of other musicians especially songs from Born in the USA. Bruce’s originals on that LP were bombastic and over-produced. So many musicians cover Bruce’s songs beautifully but when Bruce does a cover it often falls flat.

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