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Bossy Woman: Aimee Mann and several other post-folkie heavyweights add to the heartfelt Springsteen cover album, 'Badlands.'

Why He's the Boss

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska songs get new interpretations on tribute album

By Michelle Goldberg

FOR A NEW GENERATION of fans, Bruce Springsteen's musical legacy has been obscured by his fame. Not for those who grew up with him, of course, who first fell in love with him with 1975's Born to Run or 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town and knew him as the bruised-romantic poet of factory-town desperation, but for those who first heard of him with Born in the USA.

On the surface, that 1984 album and its title track seemed all anthemlike good-ol'-boy bombast, a misconception that was reinforced by the macho appellation, "The Boss," and by Ronald Reagan's idiotic ode to Springsteen in a campaign speech, when he said, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen."

Never mind that the song "Born in the USA" was actually a piece of cutting social criticism, with lyrics like "Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man."

In the '80s, when fey, ironic, futuristic New Wave bands were all the rage, Springsteen's unfashionable heartland earnestness seemed like a relic, a perception that has yet to abate in many circles. I've been continuously surprised by the sophisticated twentysomething music fans who scoff and snort when his name comes up.

With luck, Badlands, a new tribute to Springsteen's Nebraska album, will help put an end to all that. For anyone who ever doubted it, it's a reminder of the muted, devastating genius of his songwriting, the ineffable pathos and gritty, literary radiance of his hard-luck lyrics. Released in 1982, Nebraska is Springsteen's most lugubrious, haunting work, an acoustic evocation of the country's forgotten stretches that directly recalls Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and even John Steinbeck.

Badlands is not the first Springsteen tribute album, just the first to do him justice. The 1997 double-disc cover album One Step Up/Two Steps Back had a few gems on it--especially David Bowie's coy, glam version of "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City"--but many of the tracks came off either as novelty items or as simply mediocre. A Donna Summer disco version of the Springsteen rarity "Protection" is weirdly amusing but nothing more.

Whereas One Step Up/Two Steps Back had a karaoke randomness to it, Badlands is coherent, both because of the musicians--people like Chrissie Hynde, Ani DiFranco and Johnny Cash--and because of the consistency of Nebraska's songs. While the tracks don't simply mimic Springsteen's originals, they're true to Nebraska's spirit--full of spare, heart-shredding sadness, desolate purity and pathos.

Except for three bonus tracks at the end (including a fabulous version of "I'm on Fire" by Johnny Cash), Badlands follows Nebraska's lineup exactly. It begins with Chrissie Hynde and Adam Seymour's subdued take on the title track, the story of serial killer Charlie Starkweather. Over a melancholy feedback pulse, Hynde slowly, purposefully unspools the grisly tale with a perfect mixture of pride and regret. "I can't say that I'm sorry/for the things that we done/At least for a little while, sir/me and her had us some fun," she sings, and though the words are callous, the ache in Hynde's singing is piercing.

THE NEXT TRACK is the only misstep on the record--the buoyancy in Hank Williams III's honky-tonk version of "Atlantic City" feels shrill, compared to the original and the rest of the album. After that, though, it's all shattering beauty.

Folksinger Dar Williams performs "Highway Patrolman" with choked-up grace, singing about a criminal brother named Frankie with a voice like crushed velvet. The verses tell of Frankie's travails, while the wrenching chorus looks toward happier days: "Me and Frankie laughin' and drinkin'/Nothin' feels better than blood on blood/Takin' turns dancin' with Maria/As the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood.' "

On DiFranco's "Used Cars," the slow, chiming guitar is reminiscent of Mazzy Star, and her voice is low in the mix as she croons a tale of childhood economic humiliation and the oaths a poor kid makes to transcend the situation he was born into. DiFranco's history of chronicling working-class despair in her native Buffalo enriches the song and helps make it her own, even as her resonant interpretation does credit to Springsteen's writing.

Almost every song on the record is superlative in one way or another. Two that stand out the most are both duets--Aimee Mann and Michael Penn on the wryly uplifting "Reason to Believe," and Damien Jurado and Rose Thomas on the tortured "Wages of Sin," included as a bonus track. With their powerful interplay between male and female, both demonstrate how new voices can give familiar material a wholly fresh energy.

Cover songs are often seen as intrinsically inferior to original ones, the territory of wannabes and hacks. In the past, though, great songs by everyone from Kurt Weill to "Hound Dog" writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller floated around the cultural landscape, appearing in multiple interpretations by many singers.

The point isn't that any of the tracks on Badlands are superior to those on Nebraska, an album it seems impossible to improve upon. But Springsteen's songs are so rich, they deserve to be recorded repeatedly, with different artists bringing out new nuances. These new iterations deepen the music's meaning. That's a tribute to Springsteen, yes, but also to all the artists on this sublime collection.

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From the November 9-15, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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