Dead Man’s Town:A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Born down in a dead man’s town/first kick I took was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much/then you spend half your life trying to cover it up” aren’t exactly the kind of lyrics that scream multi-platinum sales. But add glossy production, thunderous arrangements and Bruce Springsteen’s gruff, boomy vocals and the result was his biggest seller to date, one that moved over 30 million copies worldwide. Coming after the sparse Nebraska, Springsteen’s 1984 release Born in the U.S.A. was an enormous artistic and commercial shift, pushing him into superstar, stadium headliner status. Thirty years later, Columbia/Sony might have missed the boat by not commemorating the event with an expanded box. But that left an opening for this multi-artist tribute with each act taking on one of the 12 tunes, presented in order.
Everything about this suggests laid back and budget conscious, especially when the biggest names involved are the North Mississippi Allstars, Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle. The predominantly acoustic settings dial down Springsteen’s chest beating vocals and the dated, glossy, synthesizer enhanced production that helped make it such a crossover success. More importantly, it focuses on his lyrics, which were often subjugated under the boisterous arrangements. That is certainly the case with the title track as Jason Isbell and wife/fiddle player Amanda Shires infuse the song with all the dark uncertainties in the tale of a blue collar Vietnam veteran struggling to move on with his life after fighting for his country.
The same goes for Nicole Atkins’ spooky, ominous and edgy “Dancing in the Dark,” in a radically different version than Springsteen’s frothy one. The band Low does something similar to “I’m on Fire,” drenching the already stark performance in oozing, shoe gazing reverb muck. Ditto for Earle’s introspective take on “Glory Days” where he all but ignores the song’s sing-along melodic hooks to concentrate on its ruminative lyrics of reflection and unfulfilled dreams. Holly Williams, one of only two female vocalists contributing, runs “No Surrender” through a far more melancholy arrangement akin to how Springsteen himself later performed it, far removed from his initial frantic version.
Considering the hit or miss variables of other such tributes, Dead Man’s Town is remarkably focused and consistent. More high profile names would have brought increased attention and gravitas to what is clearly a labor of love, especially since it includes such far under-the-radar acts like Apache Relay (“Cover Me”), Ryan Culwell (“Bobby Jean”) and Quaker City Nighthawks (“Darlington County”). That in no way lessens the quality of their contributions, all of which fit snugly into the format of increasing the attention to Springsteen’s words by stripping away the instrumental layers that often obscured them.
Barring a 30th anniversary reinterpretation by Springsteen, this will hopefully send new listeners who might not have heard the original or even those who are not Springsteen fans, back to Born in the U.S.A. to discover what they might have missed.