When The National meets "Mansion on a Hill": The best Springsteen covers of all time

Bruce has inspired some awful covers over the years. But also a few that may be better than the originals

Published November 15, 2014 4:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Lennox Mclendon/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1056848p1.html'>Roy J Baron</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(AP/Lennox Mclendon/Roy J Baron via Shutterstock/Salon)

There was a new Bruce Springsteen tribute compilation released recently by the name of “Dead Man's Town: A Tribute to Born in the U.S.A.,” a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Boss's iconic album. The approach was somewhat predictable, with good and bad results: strip it down “to the core” and rearrange some of the man's biggest pop anthems into quieter, more contemplative acoustic versions, often trafficking in a country or alt-country vibe. There are some stellar incarnations there, but it's ironically a tribute that also sort of misses the genius of the record, the fact that it had married stories that were so often dark and defeated to some of Springsteen's most ingenious pop songwriting, the contrast that makes it one of the Springsteen albums most worth returning to.

Springsteen's one of those artists whose songs are fodder for covers and interpretations both inspired and not. There is, of course, a long history of other people playing his music; he was known to sell compositions to pop stars in the late '70s and early '80s, and every now and then you had something like Manfred Mann getting a major hit (“Blinded By the Light”) off of an otherwise minor Springsteen song. Back in 2007, around the release of “Magic” and when Arcade Fire was getting compared to Bruce a lot, there was some talk of how this influence manifested in more contemporary bands. There's a distinct strain of the indie/rock world of the 21st century that reflects Springsteen's sound and ideas, ranging from the Gaslight Anthem to the Hold Steady to the War on Drugs to the Killers. So in honor of Springsteen's latest album collection, to be released on Nov. 17, here are 10 of the top Springsteen covers of all time:

Bat for Lashes — “I'm On Fire”

“I'm On Fire” gets covered a lot. Probably more than any other Springsteen song. More often than not, it's a song people can pick up and play safe and straight with. It's very simple structurally, and it doesn't take much effort to learn the thing and slide it into a live set. So when someone actually does something with it, it can be a shock to the system. Amongst younger, perhaps more indie-minded Springsteen fans, Bat for Lashes' version of the song is often cited as a high-water mark for Springsteen covers. Boasting a dramatic rearrangement, the Bat for Lashes version is all tentative but persistent piano, lachrymose strings and an ethereal marxophone lead. Out of the various feelings in “I'm On Fire,” Natasha Khan's otherworldly voice is more a match for yearning than lust.

The National — “Mansion on the Hill”

It's always interesting to see how a band takes on the material from “Nebraska.” Those songs' power comes from just how bare-bones they are -- but replicating the special bleakness of that record is a fool's errand and, ironically, sometimes the best course is to flesh the songs out and explore them in a different way.

On one hand, The National seem an odd candidate for covering “Mansion on the Hill.” Their rendition is taken from the “Virginia EP,” from around the same time as their 2007 release “Boxer,” which was The National at peak melancholy, but also a moment where they were more fully embracing orchestration and a more dour chamber-pop aesthetic. They sound more like the mansion itself than the guy at the bottom of the hill cursing up at it. On the other hand, The National are in their way a Springsteen for our era, laconically singing of being “showered and blue-blazered,” identifying a certain kind of white-collar existentialism that might pick up the story with some of the children or grandchildren of the protagonists in Springsteen's songs.

Junip — “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Even more skeletal and restrained than “Nebraska,” material from “The Ghost of Tom Joad” seems an odd place to go if you're choosing a Springsteen song to cover. Sure, there's some precedent with the title track. Rage Against the Machine turned it into a rap-rock song for their covers compilation “Renegades” in 2000, and Springsteen himself has updated the song into a titanic, occasionally transformative experience than can stretch toward the 10-minute mark when he plays it live with the E Street Band. Ironically, now he often employs part-time E Street member and former Rage man Tom Morello to inject sometimes cathartic, sometimes misplaced guitar theatrics into it.

Out of the various incarnations of the song, my favorite is probably the live E Street renditions sans Morello, which feel like properly super-sized mechanisms for the outrage at the core of the song. In comparison, Junip's cover is more of a logical musical extension of the original. I'm not sure José González (the Swedish musician behind Junip) is capable of conveying outrage in his voice, but what his version lacks in violence, it more than makes up for with the particulars of its hopelessness. It's not a big rock version of the song — it still hinges on an acoustic guitar as its primary weapon, but the little touches González builds up around it are stunning. It's the little organ drones that grow and rise around him, like the sound of a man being overtaken by history. It's dusty and haunting, well in tune with all those Springsteen protagonists taking off down a highway and slowly coming to terms with the fact that salvation isn't waiting at the other end simply because you're moving.

Low — “I'm On Fire”

There are some strong contenders on “Dead Man's Town” for this list — Jason Isbell and Amanda Shire's mournful “Born in the U.S.A.” and Nicole Atkins' slow-burn “Dancing in the Dark” are both standouts. But everything on the compilation pales in comparison to Low's “I'm On Fire.” Again, this is a Springsteen song that gets covered a lot in very repetitive ways, and somehow Low managed to make me hear a relatively simple (but very famous and recognizable) Springsteen song with new ears. It reminds me of when Elbow covered U2's “Running to Stand Still.” These are covers where an artist was able to start with the original spirit of the song, but successfully dress it up in contemporary clothes. “I'm On Fire” has always been a song of yearning and lust and late-night meandering drives, but Low's moodier qualities push it even further.

 Titus Andronicus — “Glory Days”

I'm of the opinion that “Born in the U.S.A.” is basically a perfect album. The only things that hold it back for me are “Cover Me” (which could've benefitted from being replaced by a finished version of the original song) and “Glory Days,” the song everyone points to when they want to complain about Springsteen in the same breath as John Mellencamp. When Titus Andronicus — a band who once sang “Tramps like us/Baby we were born to die!”, playing with a certain famous Boss lyric — played at the iconic Hoboken, New Jersey, venue Maxwell's toward the end of its existence last year, they performed a cover of “Glory Days.” Their version is raw and raucous, taking the drunken nostalgia of the song and turning it into a drunken fervor, a proper sendoff to Maxwell's and an invigorating version of a song I normally can hardly stand.

Kurt Vile — “Downbound Train”

“Downbound Train” is also the most obviously dark song on an album that is most readily recognized as Springsteen's peak as both populist songwriter and pop star. Where much of the album is marked by a tension between the bleak stories and the triumphant music underpinning them, “Downbound Train” is a brooding, unsettled song, almost setting up a dark heart for the album before quickly ceding to the much friendlier(-sounding) “I'm On Fire.” Overloaded with bleeding, Dinosaur Jr.-esque guitars, Vile's version brings the song's desperation to the fore in a sonic sense, his detached voice weakly at war with the squalor around him just as the protagonist of “Downbound Train” is with the world.

Arcade Fire — “Born in the U.S.A.”

Alongside their gradual ascension to a band that could fill arenas, Arcade Fire garnered a lot of comparisons to Bruce. You could hear it in some of the music (“Keep the Car Running,” the awesome part that happens for 20 seconds at the 2-minute mark of “Suburban War”), and certainly in some of the themes (most songs on “The Suburbs”). And the two artists made the connection real, with Springsteen appearing on the cover of SPIN with Win Butler in 2007, with Win and Regine Chassagne joining the E Street Band in Ottawa in 2007 to play “Keep the Car Running” and the excellent “Nebraska” cut “State Trooper." But Arcade Fire rarely sound Bruce-y in the way of most bands associated with the “Bruce-indebted indie act” category — they've just convincingly taken some cues from him and incorporated it into a new, anthemic indie that didn't quite exist ten years ago.

At an Obama staff ball in 2009, Arcade Fire decided to cover “Born in the U.S.A.” That song is a sleeper candidate for one of the 10 greatest Springsteen songs, a tune that was oversaturated, misunderstood and — like “Glory Days” — a symbol of why people hate on Springsteen, but wound up vital enough to still sound amazing turned up very, very loud today. It's also a song that most bands shouldn't be able to pull off at all. Arcade Fire's version has their 2009 fingerprints all over it — the more gradual swell, the synths toned down for accordion and mandolin melodies — and it works so well.

The Hold Steady — “Atlantic City”

Back in 2010, E Street drummer Max Weinberg told Rolling Stone about the full-band version of “Nebraska” that was shelved when Springsteen decided to release his raw, sparse demos instead. Out of everything that's come out or has yet to come out of the Springsteen vaults, this is amongst the most intriguing. “Nebraska” stands out in Springsteen's canon not only as a sonic and tonal outlier, but also as the one it's often “cool to like,” its darker, lo-fi nature supposedly more indie-friendly than the rest of the Boss's work.

The Hold Steady play “Atlantic City” the way Springsteen might have had it been held onto as a pop single for “Born in the U.S.A.,” or a song he recorded much later in his career. After a mournful piano intro, the song has more of an emphatic groove than just about anyone else's interpretation of the song (like “I'm On Fire,” “Atlantic City” is a go-to Springsteen cover). Perhaps the best part is how the Hold Steady transpose the original's haunting mandolin part into big saxophone breaks, a fitting nod to E Street fixture Clarence Clemons, who rarely played much of a role in live renditions of the song, typically hanging back and playing tambourine. Bonus points for Craig Finn's increasingly intense repetitions of the “Last night I met this guy, I'm gonna do a favor for him” line. That's what's great about the Hold Steady's version: it doesn't totally depart from the emotive elements of the gang story in “Atlantic City,” but by making the whole thing as danceable and cathartic as it is, they take a Springsteen classic and make it sound like another Springsteen classic that never quite existed.

SALEM — “Brustreet”

Amongst the least likely Springsteen covers out there, electronic group SALEM's “Brustreet” is a narcotic, rechristened cover of “Streets of Philadelphia.” “Streets of Philadelphia” is another common candidate out of the Springsteen canon for other artists to take a stab at. Like “I'm On Fire,” it's a relatively simple and catchy option, relative to efforts required to do justice to something like the towering, multi-part songs on “Born to Run.” It's a latter-ish day Springsteen hit, associated with a popular and respected Tom Hanks film, so it's amongst those Springsteen songs that younger and/or more unfamiliar listeners might have some knowledge of. “Common candidate,” in this instance, usually means someone doing a coffeehouse-ready solo acoustic reading of the emotional song, though. SALEM's version is weird because, primarily, who would've expected a witch house artist to cover a Springsteen song in the first place? Once you get over that, what's even more intriguing is that they manage to craft “Brustreet” in a way that makes the cover feel like it could've been totally logically placed on their album “King Night,” but also doesn't depart as radically from the original as that would suggest. The beat clearly recalls the looped percussion of Springsteen's original, and the vocal melodies are all there — just bled out into ghostly echoes, surrounded by the occasional synth warp and a numbing, lower coo of another synth. Like most of SALEM's work, it sort of sounds like you're seeing the world perpetually at the final moments of twilight, with a severe head cold and lots of medication (or any drugs in general).

Sharon Van Etten — “Drive All Night”

Typically, the covers I find least interesting occur when an artist goes solo and sparse, stripping a song down to a single acoustic guitar or piano. Something about it's too obvious, a straightforward and easy way to scan as serious and introspective, and often I find myself wishing an artist or band would do a full arrangement that somehow brought a cover into their own personal universe a bit more. The biggest exception to this that I've come across, ever, is Sharon Van Etten's piano-only rendition of “Drive All Night,” which is a stunning tribute to a hallowed deep cut and fan favorite in the Springsteen canon. Van Etten's voice, as always, is completely transfixing — pure and ethereal and pained in a way that makes me wonder how a human body can go to those places. Where Springsteen's original is a vast, impressionistic thing of multiple rises and falls with minor catharses scattered throughout, Van Etten's achieves what so many solo piano covers attempt. Like her own music, it's such a raw and emotionally naked performance that it makes you feel just about every emotion at once.

By Ryan Leas

Ryan Leas (@RyanLeas) is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also written for GQ.com, Stereogum, and the Village Voice's music blog Sound of the City.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bruce Springsteen Music The National Video