Angel Olsen Takes on the Boss

photo by Amanda Marsalis

Songwriters choose their covers carefully. It’s a chance to show off influences or introduce a new audience to an old favorite. Sometimes maybe there’s more to it.

On her new collection of B-sides, demos and rarities, Phases, after the deeply felt yodel folk of the buoyant “California,” Angel Olsen sings a studiedly surprising cover—Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest.” If you aren’t familiar with the song, and nobody would blame you, it’s one of the highlights of Tunnel of Love, the Boss’s sort-of-solo follow up to Born in the USA. As Springsteen recorded it, mostly with drum machine and synth parts he played himself, the mid-tempo’80s-synth-pop didn’t sit that well with his base. But there’s a classic Springsteen track hidden in there. The lyrics are the kind of aching barroom balladry made to pair with slide guitars, sticky floors and whiskey.

Olsen strips everything away. She lays bare the pathos and the hurt in the song. Things that Springsteen had slathered with that synth-y saccharine coating.

It’s the singer’s pick-up line in a bar. And not a good one. The title verse follows the couplet “Well, round here, baby, I learned, you get what you can get.”

If you’re rough enough for love, honey, I’m tougher than the rest.

The song comes from a place of middle-age despair. “Well, it ain’t no secret. I’ve been around a time or two. Well, I don’t know, baby, maybe you’ve been around, too.” It’s worth noting that in the time between Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love, Springsteen had split with his actress-model wife and possibly his band.

Olsen lays the lyrics bare and lets them hang on nothing more than a skeleton of a strummed guitar and static: “All you gotta do is say yes.” She stares straight wide-eyed and does not look away. It’s never clear if she’s the propositioner or the recipient (and, in which case, the song is now an eye-roll).

The choice of cover seems haphazard, almost a throwaway—a track that is irrelevant to all but the most devout disciples of Asbury Park. Olsen doesn’t cover Springsteen at the height of his cool: The Born to Run– or Wild, the Innocent-era. When you look at pictures of Springsteen from back then, bearded and beanied, he could be the dude you saw hanging behind the place at a secret dive in Bushwick last week.

But behold the broken Boss on Tunnel of Love. This is his awkward phase—after the good times, after huge and confusing success, but before elder statesmanship and respect. He’s leaning against his mid-life-crisis convertible wearing a bolo tie with his Jersey Shore in the background. He’s got a scrutinizing look on his face like he’s waiting up for that damn punk from Darkness on the Edge of Town to get home. A bolo tie for god’s sake!

This looks like the guy who might, five or six Miller High Lifes in on a Saturday night, lean over the bar toward you and slur something like, “Some girls they want a Handsome Dan, or some Good-Looking Joe.” Then he’d probably wink at you. In his bolo tie.

You can only imagine that Olsen relishes the gender reversal of the subject matter or saving this song from this discard bin. Likely, both.