When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Damien Jurado & Rosie Thomas take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Wages Of Sin.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
The Boss’ haunting and sad “Wages Of Sin” originally appeared on Tracks, a four-disc boxed set released in 1998 filled with b-sides and alternate recordings of previously released material. Personally, I came to know it by Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, which, perhaps oddly for a music writer, I’d heard before actually hearing the original, demo-filled folk album that many consider the greatest achievement of his charmed career. However, despite the tribute album being released by the well-respected Sub Pop label (we assume label execs working at that level do their homework), there does seem to be some dispute about whether “Wages Of Sin” was recorded during the Nebraska sessions or for Born In The U.S.A. (As for me, the stark, insular nature of the song makes it pretty clear, but I’d love some clarification in the comments section if you fancy yourself a Boss aficionado.)
Either way, “Wages Of Sin”—like the rest of Nebraska and, in many ways, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The Ghost Of Tom Joad—gives us a look at the Springsteen many of us prefer over the E Street Band-backed, blue-collar symbol of Reagen-era patriotism. (For the record, I love the E Street Band and, in a classic sense, patriotism, but those influences aren’t as kind to Springsteen’s music, in my opinion, as Americana lit and the folk singers of yore.) It’s a love song, but one that wrestles with consequences. We don’t know what “sin” the Boss is referring to, but it’s clear that his indiscretions have wrought intense pain at home. Clothes are strewn about; conversation is non-existent. And all he wants to do is flee some persistent evil, to not be stricken with the sense that mankind can never be truly good. “Dancing In The Dark” is fine enough, but these are the kinds of songs that make a mark that won’t as quickly be forgotten. Brilliantly, in 1982, they were being recorded by one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
The severely undervalued Damien Jurado has been making “Wages Of Sin”-esque material since his debut in the late-’90s. In particular, The Ghost Of David, Now That I’m In Your Shadow and, more recently, Saint Bartlett are brimming over with characters who want more from their marriages and their gods, their sons and their fellow countrymen. So when the Seattle songwriter took on “Wages Of Sin,” assisted by the angelic vocals of Rosie Thomas, he was treading familiar waters. Indeed, in many ways the song sounds like a Jurado number: sad but devoid of melancholy, each simply performed note and beat all perfectly submissive to the larger story. One walks away from the best Jurado material with the sense that he just stared into the face of every conflicted American failing in an endeavor to do his best. A depressing picture, to be sure, but we somehow feel better because of it—affirmed in the knowledge that our “wages” are shared.