Edgy And Dull: 20 Covers Of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” Rated
A few weeks back, we premiered Low’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” and it was great (more on that below). It’s their contribution to a forthcoming Springsteen tribute titled Dead Man’s Town, a compilation marking the thirtieth anniversary of Born In The U.S.A. (and taking its name from that album’s title track). Between that Low cut and Jason Isbell’s reading of “Born In The U.S.A.,” the collection seems promising.
But the Low version also got us thinking specifically about “I’m On Fire” — well, I’m often thinking about this song and the album it hails from. Somewhere along the line, “I’m On Fire” became the stereotypical Springsteen song to cover, and, accordingly, a lot of artists have done so. It makes sense on multiple levels. It’s very simple structurally, not difficult to play or sing. It’s also very approachable. There’s a simplicity and casualness to finding your way into “I’m On Fire” that just isn’t possible with something as idiosyncratic or monolithic as “Born To Run.” It occupies a healthy middle ground, actually. As one of the several major singles from Born In The U.S.A., “I’m On Fire” is recognizable enough to appeal to audiences even if they’re not huge Springsteen fans, but it’s also not overly hallowed ground, as if you were trying to take on “Jungeland” or “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” or something. It’s become the “Yesterday” of his catalog.
So, given those circumstances, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the many “I’m On Fire” covers, and award them special distinctions so you know just what you’re getting into in the big mess of “I’m On Fire” permutations out there on the internet.
The “Super Late Night Drive Edition” Award — AWOLNATION
If Springsteen’s original feels like a paean delivered on an aimless midnight drive, AWOLNATION’s has just the right amount of brooding mixed with just the right amount of hazy seductiveness to push “I’m On Fire” closer to the 3 or 4 AM mark. Instrumentally, it’s a cool arrangement — the quickening of the pulse during the “ooo-ooos” is a nice touch. I just wish the singer’s voice was a bit lower and grainer, because as it stands the version feels like half of what it could be. It’d be interested to hear someone take this interpretation and go with it, teasing out the darker dance elements, and then getting Michael Mann to shoot a video of them in one deep shade of blue.
The “Overwhelmingly Meh” Award — John Mayer
This is the unfortunate quality of “I’m On Fire” — it’s the exact Springsteen song that’s an easy target for an obvious, sensitive soft-rock cover. It’s the obvious one for someone like John Mayer to go to in order to theoretically establish some sort of classic rock bona fides, which he’s always trying to do. At any rate, this plays out essentially as you’d expect, which means if you heard a local musician playing it in a coffee shop you wouldn’t think twice. Somewhat disturbingly, there are also people on the internet, or at least in YouTube’s comments section, who believe this is superior to Bruce’s original, but bonus points to the dude who said, “I use half of your lyrics for pick up lines on girls” (this still works after all these years?) and the person who responded “These are Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics,” because that whole thing made me laugh.
The “Campfire Singalong” Award — The Airborne Toxic Event
When you’ve got a song like “I’m On Fire,” that’s easy to play and to sing, you’re bound to wind up in some situation where people are sitting around and some dude picks up an acoustic and gives the song a go, whether people want him to or not. The Airborne Toxic Event’s version kinda has that campfire hangout vibe with its casual, endearingly tossed off quality. Only, you know, with everyone singing along and stand up bass and violin and a snare drum played by hand. I like the violin embellishments, and the whole hands-on-snare thing gives their cover a bit of ramshackle movement that’s often missing when someone does a straight read on solo guitar or piano. It sounds like what would happen if you and your friends decided to mess around with the song in someone’s basement, and it’s more fun for it.
The “Good God, How Did We Let This Happen” Award — Slightly Stoopid
I found out this existed, and I was extremely hesitant to click play, but I did anyway because I am a fearless journalist. Turns out Slightly Stoopid’s take on “I’m On Fire” is actually played pretty straight and inoffensive. Even so, this is an act of musical terrorism because (a) I got severe anxiety for two and a half minutes that a reggae break was coming at any given moment and (b) this exposed me to people on the internet who thought Slightly Stoopid took Springsteen’s song “to the next level,” and, well, no thanks, ever.
The “This Could Maybe Be Incredible” Award — Twin Shadow
For a while, Twin Shadow was running a series called UNDER THE CVRS, in which he’d record covers that fans requested. His version of “I’m On Fire” is very short and kind of feels like a sketch for something that, if he were to flesh it out for an official release of some sort, could be really special. His breathy, deconstructed R&B take has the sort of bleary-eyed lustfulness to make it a fitting modern update of Springsteen’s original, it just doesn’t quite get there. This was a casual thing he was doing, and it still sounds like that, but I can’t help imagining what a more fully realized version of this interpretation could sound like alongside “To The Top” at a Twin Shadow show this fall.
The “Rift In Time And Space” Award — Barry Gibb
For reasons I can’t entirely put my finger on, it is so bizarre and hilarious to me that this exists, and to be honest it’s included here purely because of that. As Gibb mentions in his intro, a similar tear in the universe occurred when Springsteen covered “Stayin’ Alive” in Australia earlier this year, so Gibb decided to return the favor. The result is more or less what would’ve happened if Springsteen had written this for some sort of yacht-rock artist in the late ’70s or early ’80s.
The “People’s Choice” Award — Tori Amos
There are a few reasons I can think of for me not quite connecting with Tori Amos’ cover of “I’m On Fire.” I’m not overly familiar with her as an artist, or because the first time I heard it I was watching a live video and she kept on making these goofy faux-suggestive eyes at the audience. Or, primarily, because I’m not generally a fan of the bare piano ballad treatment of covers. (A major exception being Sharon Van Etten’s similarly stripped down rendition of another Bruce classic, “Drive All Night,” which is gorgeous.) But hey, Scott suggested this one, and it’s one of the first versions my friends mentioned when I told them about this piece. So it has some stature in the grand scheme of “I’m On Fire” covers. For what it’s worth, I like it a lot more now that I’m not watching that live video.
The “There Is Evil In The World” Award — Kenny Chesney
I never wanted to hear a pop-country rendition of “I’m On Fire” and now I have and that makes me sad.
The “If Bruce Had Sold The Song To A New Wave Band In ’83” Award — Chromatics
As I’ve noted on numerous occasions on this site, I’m a sucker for ’80s synth-pop, or contemporary bands that draw heavily on the form. Chromatics usually do some really cool stuff within that framework, and their version of “I’m On Fire” has that gauzy/dreamy/smeared vibe that makes their own records great. For a while, Springsteen had a habit of selling his poppiest compositions to others, who went on to have big pop hits with them, and it’s not a leap to imagine something like Chromatics’ version coming out in ’83 had Springsteen opted to do so with “I’m On Fire.”
The “Token Stupid Indie Version” Award — Born Ruffians
If I had tried to think of the platonic ideal of an anonymously ’00s-indie sounding band doing “I’m On Fire,” this approximates what I would’ve come up with. It’s twee in a sorta lo-fi way, and that backing vocal affectation? Come on. This reminds me of Vampire Weekend’s cover of “I’m Goin’ Down,” and there’s just no way that’s going to make me a happy person.
The “Drunk British Guy Singing On A Street Corner” Award — The Wave Pictures
There’s a sense in which the Wave Pictures’ version of “I’m On Fire” is as cloyingly smirk-y as Born Ruffians’, but as the title of this particular award says, it’s of a slightly different breed. This sounds like a couple of guys wasted and struggling their way through the song as the sun’s starting to creep up and the night’s final stragglers are shuffling home. Which winds up making this version a bit more endearing, even though it’s certainly not the first one I’d put on a playlist.
The “I’m Surprisingly Let Down By This” Award — Big Country
Just the other day, I was going on about how much I love the Big Country song “In A Big Country.” So, naturally, when I heard they’d done a version of “I’m On Fire,” I was like, “Oh, damn!” and then I heard it and was like, “Oh, damn.” There’s nothing necessarily off about their performance, per se, it just kinda sounds like a really competent bar band running through it. Not that I expected them to have transformed “I’m On Fire” into some sort of bombastic ’80s pop anthem, but I’m also not saying I would’ve opposed that.
The “Sorta Missed Opportunity, Sorta Still Epic Just For Happening” Award — Johnny Cash
In 2000, Johnny Cash contributed his version of “I’m On Fire” to a Springsteen tribute entitled Badlands. This must’ve been awesome for Springsteen, as Cash is clearly of the generation of American musicians Springsteen grew up revering, and would took inspiration from. That being said, this was in the midst of Cash’s stunning series of American records towards the end of his life, a run of albums produced by Rick Rubin and comprised primarily of ragged, weathered covers. His take on “I’m On Fire,” meanwhile, sounds like a tangent, or possibly a leftover from another era. His voice is as immortal as ever, the production of it just seems a little dated for 2000. As cool as it is to see one legend pay tribute to another, it’s hard not to think of what this might’ve sounded like as a part of one of the American records. For a comparison point, see Cash’s cover of a much-less appreciated Springsteen song, “(Further On) Up The Road.”
The “Ingenuity” Award — Electrelane
This isn’t a hard award to win in this particular field. Electrelane happens to be one of the only artists that’s gone and done anything substantive in terms of rearrangements when it comes to “I’m On Fire.” I guess it’s become the sort of standard you play as a straightforward tribute, but that can work well or it can sound non-committal. Electrelane, on the other hand, infuses “I’m On Fire” with a bit of post-punk and/or Krautrock pulse, and it’s pretty awesome. The intro kills — a full 40 seconds of building instrumental tension in a cover that lasts just over two minutes. Where everyone gently coos their covers, they bleat over buzzy distortion and propulsive drums (and handclaps!). It sounds like it should boil over into a final minute of fuzziness and that persistent organ drone growing louder and more piercing, and while I wish it did, this is still one of my favorite interpretations of “I’m On Fire” out there.
The “Hey, This Is Surprisingly All Right” Award — Mumford And Sons
I can’t quite remember the moment where I realized we were all supposed to hate Mumford And Sons. Nevermind, that’s not true. One, maybe in 2013, I was walking through the West Village on a Saturday afternoon and passed by a lame-looking bar (such is the case on W. 4th off 6th Ave., it’s all sex shops and cheap bars). Through the front door, I glimpsed a group of about six Jersey Shore-looking dudes all with their arms around each other, doing a synchronized kick to “Little Lion Man” and I thought “Hey, this looks like the end of civilization.” But, in seriousness, I’m more ambivalent about Mumford than repulsed by them, and even with a more muted stance on the subject, I went into this one expecting something wrong without exactly knowing what kind of wrong I should be expecting. And it’s really not bad — I like the accordion standing in for synthesizers and the acoustic arrangement and all that. If someone else was singing over this, I’d probably think it was really great.
The “Surprising To Precisely Nobody” Award — Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem
It’s no secret that Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem is a Springsteen acolyte — it’s right there in a lot of the music he writes. He’s been known to cover him from time to time, and they’ve even become pals along the way, showing up onstage with each other now and then. It’s gotten to the point where Fallon apparently grimaces through some of the Bruce comparisons, but I’m not sure you can really blame people. Fallon even references “I’m On Fire” real directly in Gaslight’s “High Lonesome“: “And at night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet/ it’s a pretty good song, baby you know the rest/ Baby you know the rest.” So really, it makes total sense that he’d do “I’m On Fire,” and that he’d play it pretty straight. And that’s exactly what happened. This one won’t change anyone’s life, but it makes a lot of sense.
The “Why Do Pop Country Acts Keep Covering This” Award — Lady Antebellum
Keith Urban also does one. Out of all the Bruce songs, I guess it makes sense, since it’s a big pop single, and because it can lean very country so easily. There are so many other Springsteen songs that could be countrified, but then again maybe I shouldn’t be asking for Lady Antebellum to get their hands on deep(er) Springsteen cuts. At any rate, as Yoko Ono is fond of saying: stop the violence, stop all wars.
The “2014” Award — Low
Back when we premiered this song, and before I listened to different versions of “I’m On Fire” approximately a million times to bring you this very special list, I had already decided Low’s take on the song was not only one of the best Springsteen covers I’d heard in some time, but also a very convincing interpretation of what “I’m On Fire” could/should sound like if it had come into the world in 2014. Because this is Low, their version of “I’m On Fire” is sleepier and sadder and more haunting than most of the other versions out there. Structurally, it doesn’t depart from the original too much, but between that weird drone sound in the beginning and the way the guitar comes off as more guttural than the original, Low adds little touches that sets their version apart in a way that leaves an impression. It’s a worthy update, and a worthy tribute.
The “Complete And Obvious Frontrunner” Award — Bat For Lashes
Anyone I mentioned this list to cut me off before I finished the explanation, and it was always with the same name: Bat For Lashes. Natasha Khan’s version of “I’m On Fire” is the most unique and beautiful cover of the song out there, and she manages to achieve this while staying true to the song’s natural premise. There are few instances in which someone can take a song as well-known as “I’m On Fire” and hold it so convincingly in their own world, but Khan’s more eccentric instrumentation and powerful voice succeed in doing so. She’s also seemed to have realized what, for some reason, so few others have about this song — it’s OK to have the tension of the song rupture in some fashion, even if Springsteen didn’t on the original recording. Each time a string swells or Khan lets a particular word peal out with greater power, it feels like little cathartic bursts. Most artists are content to sleepwalk their way to the end of this song. Khan, as always, takes you to other places.
The Boss Award — Bruce Springsteen
I mean, I had to get the man himself in here. You knew that, right? Back in ’05, when Springsteen was touring the very underrated Devils And Dust, he did a small-scale solo tour during which he frequently featured drastically altered and rearranged versions of some of his classic songs. This included a banjo rendition of “I’m On Fire.” It sounds like an alternate narrative in which Springsteen followed Nebraska not with Born In The U.S.A., but with another record of sparse and unsettling music, this time born from the swamps instead of the plains. There’s little else in Springsteen’s work — live or recorded — that sounds quite like this. I hope and expect that as he ages I’ll get the chance to see a stripped down solo show like those ’05 ones, but I’d also be interested to hear him return to this aesthetic in some way.
Which one’s your favorite? Least favorite? What’d we miss?