It's hardly a surprise that the album opens with this track. Just listen to it: it leaps out of the speakers and never falters.
Springsteen was "discovered" by John Hammond, who had also been responsible for spotting the talent of Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Springsteen had the same skills with words, weaving tales with rich images. Over his first two albums, that talent was in much evidence at the expense of a commercial rock sound. This track opened the now-classic "Born to Run" and proved that he could successfully marry his romantic lyricism with the passionate rock that made his live shows akin to religious experiences. Despite that, I prefer the haunting acoustic version that opens his live box set, where the complex lyrics sit more comfortably within a less constrictive arrangement.
The track that opened the much-delayed "Darkness on the Edge of Town" album, this is Springsteen darkening his outlook. Where "Born to Run" was rich with heroes and romantics, "Badlands" is bleak, the protagonist proclaiming his hope yet still saying "I pray that some day/It will raise me above the these/Badlands". This time such a statement isn't a promise: it is little more than a wish buried in words of desolation and hopelessness.
Springsteen is a masterful story teller, able to conjure images in the listener's brain with remarkable literary brevity. Of course, that is not sufficient when writing songs, and Springsteen adopts a reverent and restrained arrangement which allows the characters to come to life.
Well, they did proclaim this album "greatest hits" and not "best of", and this track proves justifies the title.
Few rock artists have shown a commitment to their art in the way Springsteen did with the "Nebraska" album. With a set of rough demos in hand, he entered the studio and cut classics such as "Born in the USA", but discarded them all in favour of the bleak atmosphere of his home-recorded demos.
The last track written for Born in the USA. Although Bruce had recorded a multitude of songs for it, there was still the feeling that they needed one more to round it off. Bruce wrote the song overnight and it was recorded the following day.
Cut live in the studio on the second take, it is a perfect example of how the best bands function as a unit. Listen to Max Weinberg's merciless drumming, tight throughout and then sensational as he plays out the false ending. Listen to that simple chord pattern Roy Bittan whipped up on his synth. And listen to the lyrics at the heart of that awesome vocal: therein lies the heart of the song and the reason for the passion in the performance.
On the surface, it was one of the most unlikely of rock re-births: Springsteen, all-American rock hero, jumping on the populist AIDS bandwagon represented by the film "Philadelphia", but in the space of one 3-minute recording, he captured more genuine emotion than the entire film managed to do.
Back to the Bruce Springsteen discography