I’d like to say that Dave Lifton entered into an ill-advised marriage with a young actress, while I grew my hair into a midlife-crisis ponytail and recorded an album of bare-bones dark folk.
Instead, I got a bit derailed, and although Dave would happily share the bullet (as a good writing partner always will), I take full responsibility.
(In fairness, I didn’t even look at Matt’s most recent draft for over two months due to other priorities, but I still have to ask the question: Why is my made-up scenario that much more fun than yours? It only compounds the misery that is my real life. – DL)
The truth is that the years between 1981 and 1984 are difficult ones to unpack in the recording career of Mr. Bruce Springsteen. According to the brilliant and indispensable Brucebase (which has recently moved, update your bookmarks!), the material from 1984’s blockbuster Born in the USA album was recorded over three separate sessions. A fourth session at Springsteen’s new home studio in LA yielded a few BITUSA-era B-sides and enough material to create a thematic follow-up record to 1982’s Nebraska…oh yeah, he recorded Nebraska during this time period as well.
There’s literally five or six records worth of material sitting within these three years alone, and for my part, I became fixated on that unreleased record from LA. Like Nebraska, it was recorded by Springsteen working alone, largely over just a few weeks in January and February of 1983. The music expands outward from the core Nebraska instrumentation palatte to include copious drum machine, multitracked guitar parts, and some keyboards. It explores the emotional truths of Springsteen’s themes more than their political implications, but the desperate situations these characters find themselves in are rooted in the dark economic times of the early eighties under Reagan.
(I was hoping that there was at least some record of him bringing these songs to the E Street Band so that we could include a few of them. My take is that the “Electric Nebraska” sessions went so poorly that he knew these songs wouldn’t translate.- DL)
In terms of the issues Springsteen had grappled with throughout his creative life, it seemed like the logical next step. But when I brought this idea to Dave, he rightly pointed out a huge flaw in my reasoning: There is no way that CBS would have agreed to release another sparse, acoustic record with no big hits and nothing to tour behind as the follow-up to Nebraska, which we agreed was perfect and should be left untouched in this column.
I went back and forth with Dave on it, and frankly, for a few weeks I pouted. I was so sure that I knew exactly where this series should go, and then I had no clue. But then I read back over the words we published in our previous installment, and found this:
Throughout this series, we’ve tried to stay within the boundaries of our perceptions of the real-life Springsteen, and that the only thing different about him is that his the volume of his released output approaches that of his recorded output.
While the fan in me wanted to see this completely unrecognized album get its due, the writer in me knew that releasing a semi-acoustic record in 1983 isn’t probably what Springsteen himself would have done. He struggled with material over these years, what to release and when and why, but the vast majority of his work aimed in one direction: A big rock record.
And in 1984, that’s what we have: This Hard Land.
For me, a huge impetus for starting this series was looking at 1981’s The River and seeing how it ultimately lacked the kind of sharp focus that most of his other releases managed. Springsteen himself has said that was part of its intent, to capture the many facets of pop music and American life; at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I think it wanders too far afield and contains a few lousy songs.
In our alternate Springsteen universe, Bruce instead released more frequent single-disc albums that were more focused on specific themes and ideas. By 1984, however, Springsteen had the creative clarity and the sheer material to put out his first double album. He also had the commercial clout. Where The Bands Are re-established Bruce as a major rock star after the relative commercial disappointment of The River.
Stacked from top to bottom with radio hits, This Hard Land is twenty songs of pure hot shit rock and pop music that probably would have reigned atop the record charts for twice as long as the actual Born in the USA album, and that’s saying something. Springsteen took a cue from the Rolling Stones’ own double-album masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, and sequenced a journey through four distinct emotional states–from despair and lust, through struggle, and ultimately toward love.
Sonically, it takes a similar path as Born in the USA, marrying a very brittle and sharp early-eighties production with a selection of roots-rock stompers and ballads. There’s just more of both.
Essentially, try to imagine our Born in the USA, only twice as popular, with twice as many hits. A tour with twice the attendance. We’re talking a monster, a Michael Jackson Thriller-buster.
It’s a map of America circa 1984, it’s a danceable pair of platters with hits to spare, it’s got the E Street crew in lean fighting shape. It builds on everything Springsteen’s done before and blows it all out of the water.
This Hard Land
Released June 4, 1984
How is it that the E Street Band version of this song remains envaulted?! Springsteen gave the song to Donna Summer, who earned a Grammy nomination for her performance on the track. Before he handed it off, the Boss cut his own version of the tune with E Street in early 1982. This is the song that both “Dancing in the Dark” and “Cover Me” actually WANT to be–synths that leave deep scars in the arrangement, a blistering guitar solo, a vocal that’s desperate and hungry. As an opening track, it sets the perfect tone: This Hard Land starts in a dark, angry place. If it don’t make an upcoming Tracks 2 or Born in the USA reissue, I’ll eat my hat.
Finally released on the 1995 Greatest Hits disc, this outtake has bounced around collecting circles for decades, and at one point would have been the title cut on an early, rejected track listing for what became Born in the USA. More desperation here, coupled with hints of violence–maybe the guy trying to score a few bucks in “Meeting Across the River” has fallen on really tough times, like most of America in the early eighties.
Working on the Highway
A chugging rhythm, some slapback echo, an unobtainable girl, and a chain gang. Is it Bruce Springsteen, or Sun Records-era Johnny Cash? Who cares? Just get up and dance.
If there’s any song on Born In The USA that can be considered underrated, it’s this one. That intro, with the slashing Telecaster and Max’s drums crashing in behind it, is terrifying, and the lyric powerful and gut-wrenching. The song also gets bonus points for evoking another Johnny Cash song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” when he hears that “long whistle whine,” reinforcing the narrator’s internal prison.
The song that ended Born in the USA here closes out side one of This Hard Land, completing the journey begun with “Protection” from personal despair and loneliness to the universal despair shared by a country suffering through working-class poverty. Again, Springsteen finds the parallels between the personal experiences of his listeners–each one unique unto itself–and the universal experience of his country.
Dancing in the Dark
A transition, from despair to lust–the latter often fueled by the former. Springsteen famously wrote this song in a fit of pique over manager Jon Landau’s assertion that the next record needed another “hit.” On one level, it’s a song about being sick of writing songs; on a more direct level, it’s a straight-ahead plea for human connection.
I’m On Fire
It’s only two verses, a bridge, a half-verse and a few “woo-hoos!” sung as quietly as possible against an arrangement comprised of a rimshot, arpeggio guitar, and a synth. But it’s all that space that allows the song to smolder with erotic torment like none other in Bruce’s catalog, and you just want to grab your significant other and start making out like nobody’s business. Even more than “Fire,” this one ranks high on my imaginary list of Songs Elvis Should Have Lived Long Enough To Record. It’s a pretty good song, baby, you know the rest.
Or maybe the guy just wants to party in a giant car that’s a clear metaphor for the female sexual organ.
I’m Goin’ Down
Though it’s not without its charms, admittedly it’s probably the weakest song here. But it gives a bit of lighthearted relief while furthering Side B’s themes of lust and frustration.
In concert, “Glory Days” has become a celebratory victory lap around Springsteen’s own career and his love affair with his fans. Note its key placement as the closing song of the band’s Super Bowl halftime show in 2009. Even the music video tries to mitigate the song’s themes with that cloying brat playing catch with the Boss. Listen closely and you’ll hear there is no satisfying resolution; the fond memories of youth don’t ever transition into an acceptance of the present. “Time slips away and leaves you with nothin’ mister but boring stories of…glory days.” We’re giving you an unreleased version with an extra verse, where the narrator sings about his father’s struggles.
Born in the USA
As the opening track on our universe’s album of the same name, “Born in the USA” is an unstoppable force, and colors every note you hear from there forward. Here it opens Side C, more of a grenade that blows apart the album around it rather than an opening salvo that demolishes expectations.
Man at the Top
Springsteen has always flirted a bit with country music, but this is some of the most overt twang he’s put to record. It’s reminiscent in sound to the 1999 live treatment Springsteen would give to “Mansion on the Hill,” ably supported by Nils Lofgren on slide guitar.
If the cinematic scope and boardwalk feel of this one seems out of place for Springsteen in the mid-80s, it’s because this song dates from 1976. It was recorded during the Darkness sessions but Bruce didn’t like the result. Uncharacteristically, he returned to it seven years later and got this gorgeous take, which remained headscratchingly unheard via legal means until Tracks.
When your teenage rock ‘n roll dreams come true, do you become complacent or keep fighting, this time focusing on the problems facing your country? If you’re Springsteen, this isn’t even a question.
A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh)
Side C closes as it opened, with the specter of post-Vietnam America looming in the air. But instead of a veteran, our main character is a woman alone at Christmastime, still trying and failing to rebuild her life years after her husband was killed in the war. Ho-hum, another beautifully poignant Springsteen song about lost hope and dreams, he said glibly.
There’s some pretty intense music on This Hard Land, whether it’s defiant or desperate. Here’s one that’s not so intense, a goofball outtake from the 1983 sessions that finally surfaced on the Tracks boxed set.
My Love Will Not Let You Down
Bruce’s entire catalog is about connections. It’s a word he uses in practically every interview: our connection to our family, our community, and our country. But he’s rarely laid it out as powerfully as in the second verse here: “I search for connection in some new eyes/But they’re hard for protection from too many dreams passed by/I see you standing across the room watching me without a sound/I’m gonna push my way through that crowd/I’m gonna tear all your walls down.”
None But The Brave
A brief, welcome return to the sax-driven romance of another era in Springsteen’s career. It’s a bittersweet moment of regret as the album approaches its close, filling the similar role of “Bobby Jean.” Hearing the sax riff that opens the song is especially bittersweet given the loss of Clarence Clemons.
Janey Don’t You Lose Heart
An almost gentle, reassuring mid-tempo number, again with a hint of twang from the guitar riffs. It brings the album toward an uplifting close, which is a conceit Springsteen seems to aggressively deny his listeners. In our universe, Springsteen must be an optimist.
This Hard Land
As with Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Bruce ends the album with the title track. But instead of finding himself up on a hill with nowhere to go but down, Bruce reminds us to hold on to hope, because it’s the journey, not the destination that adds meaning and beauty to life.
Almost Made the Cut
Cover Me: We’re pretty staunchly divided on this one; Dave can’t stand it, I don’t mind it. I especially enjoy the unreleased early version, “(Drop On Down And) Cover Me,” which plays the lyric more earnestly. Our compromise was to leave it off the record; Dave wanted to team up on a crusade to break into Sony’s secure climate-controlled tape vaults and destroy all existing masters.
Bobby Jean: Dave has a soft spot for this one, especially the final verse and Clarence’s glorious outro solo. But Bruce’s farewell to Little Steven didn’t fit into the themes that permeate the rest of the album.
Darlington County: Some late restructuring caused it to be replaced by “Working On The Highway,” which we agreed was inferior but better fit our narrative.
Seeds: It would have fit perfectly on to Side A, but even though it was a staple on the Born In The USA tour, it was not recorded during any of the sessions.