CK Retro Review: Nebraska by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 17, 2014
The legend behind Nebraska looms so large that it would overwhelm a lesser album. Bruce Springsteen recorded the 1982 album alone on a dinky four-track and then eventually released those demos when subsequent efforts to record the songs with the E Street Band failed to capture the same sparse magic. Yet all that would have been forgotten had not the songs and recordings been so uniformly haunting. Stricken by poverty, joblessness, class resentment, and boredom, Springsteen’s cast of characters go winging out into the country, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes violently, and together they reveal what happens when that “runaway American Dream” actually runs away. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Used Cars”- Nebraska is pretty evenly mixed between the story songs, where Springsteen inhabits or comments on other characters, and autobiographical musings. “Used Cars” falls in the latter category, as Springsteen looks back at the strange mixture of pride and shame attached to his father’s purchase of a “brand new used car.” The reminiscence is mostly good-natured, but the refrain demonstrates the lingering resentment of the boy inside the placid exterior of the man.
9. “Reason To Believe”- Springsteen brings up several blunt examples of admirable/foolish faith throughout the song, and then shakes his head in wonder at it all in the refrains. Since this is the closing song on the album, the subtext here is that, given the nine more nuanced and therefore infinitely more painful stories in the songs that preceded this one on this album, it’s truly a miracle that people can even get up in the morning let alone find a way to believe.
8. “Mansion On The Hill”- The main selling point of this song is the counterintuitive way in which Springsteen delivers it. He could have easily turned this song around into a kind of rant about the haves and have-nots; instead, he delivers it like a reverie, like a hymn even. Time passes, fortunes ebb and wane for those outside the walls, the boy looking up grows up into a man, and yet, for the mansion and its denizens, their idyllic world never seems to change. By going it at in this fashion, Springsteen makes “Mansion On The Hill” somehow soothing and scathing all at once.
7. “Open All Night”- In a lot of ways, the narrator here is just as dangerous as some of the more obvious malcontents on the album; he even shares some of the same complaints as the hair-trigger from “State Trooper.” Yet Springsteen’s one-man appropriation of 50’s rock keeps this on the lighter side, as do references to Bob’s Big Boy, Texaco road maps, and New Jersey as a “lunar landscape.” You get the feeling that this crackpot never quite got back home to his long-lost Wanda, because a desolate highway in the wee hours is really where he belongs.
6. “Nebraska”- Talk about a statement of purpose: The album opener and title track is a first-person account of an actual serial killer. Some people might take issue with Bruce toying with the facts and putting his own words (or, in one spot, Flannery O’Connor’s) in Charles Starkweather’s mouth. This isn’t a documentary, so I can excuse him on those counts. The names and the dates are immaterial anyway, because the song is more concerned with depicting the kind of lonerism that society sometimes breeds in those who are a little left of center, and how that can get blown up into something of monstrous proportions. This song would have been worthy just for its fearlessness; luckily, it’s well-executed too.
5. “Johnny 99”- What keeps Nebraska from being an unrelenting slog through old folk melodies and trudging tempos is Springsteen’s ability to change things up even while sticking with the unplugged theme. “Johnny 99” might be another hard-luck tale of the slippery slope from poverty to crime, but Bruce gives it a jolt of energy and fire with rapid-fire strumming, breathless harmonica, and passionate vocals. The real tragedy of “Johnny 99” is how inevitable it all seems, how this downward spiral seemed preordained the second the auto worker formerly known as Ralph lost his job. Hearing a song like this, you can understand Bruce’s decision to let Nebraska be; how could any amount of electric instruments make this track any more electric than it already is?
4. “My Father’s House”- The tendency is to read this song as being utterly sad, since the narrator’s dream that he might somehow reconcile through time and distance with his estranged father shatters right in his face. Yet I think there is some sort of resolution in that final verse, some acceptance gained in the fact that the son knows that the chasm will remain, maybe even, to utilize an overused term, some closure. In any case, this one is just as beautiful and fragile as the relationship it depicts.
3. “State Trooper”- As musically simple a song as is there is on the album, maybe even in Springsteen’s whole catalog, and yet it’s also as potent as anything he’s ever done. There was just some magic in the take he recorded, the way he coiled up all of the narrator’s tension into that passionless drone for the majority of the song and then uncorked it in those hair-raising, needle-slamming screams toward the end. It’s the perfect embodiment of the human powder keg telling the story; heaven help the police officer who crosses his path.
2. “Atlantic City”- Again, a little cleverness in the recording goes a long way. The intent strumming of the acoustic is contrasted by the mandolin, which evokes nostalgia for the more romantic version of the titular city that doesn’t make it into this bleak picture. In past songs like “Meeting Across The River” or “Incident On 57th Street”, characters made fateful decisions about going ahead with shady activities. The difference in “Atlantic City” is that it feels like this guy has been forced into this life choice by his crushing lot in life. Springsteen’s background howling sounds like the ghostly cries of all the others blinded by the city’s glitz and glamour into a head-on collision with a darker fate.
1. “Highway Patrolman”- Joe Roberts is the one guy in all of the story songs on Nebraska who, at least until the climax of this staggeringly great track, acts rationally; so why do you get the feeling that his fate is somehow worse than all the rest? It’s because Springsteen shows that there is always collateral damage when someone gets fed up with their place in life and goes off half-cocked into the night for some futile act of violence. In this case, the family members suffer because of Frankie’s impetuous, hot-headed behavior; his brother betrays his own ideals to cover for him. Not only does Springsteen manage to generate incredible suspense in a song that moves at a deliberate tempo, but he also achieves the amazing feat of writing a folk song that is both timeless and very much an accurate depiction of its time.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Don’t forget that you can pre-order my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs now at all major online booksellers; it will be released in June. Check out the links below for all my books and e-books.)