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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
In 1982, Bruce Springsteen famously released his home demos as an actual album (Nebraska) when attempts to capture the songs with a full band lacked the power of the rough recordings. Although it wasn’t a whole album’s worth, Elvis Costello had a similar experience with the song “New Amsterdam” a few years earlier, and the end result was similarly captivating.
Costello recorded a demo of the contemplative track that would make its way onto Get Happy!! at a studio on London, playing all the instruments himself, even drums. He then took it to the Attractions, who tried to recreate the demo in full-band form. That attempt can be heard on the bonus disc of the Get Happy!! Rhino reissue; it’s clear from that evidence that something was lost in the translation and that Elvis made the right choice in putting the original on the album.
Maybe the reason that the one-man demo worked so well, and it does have a dreamy, melancholic vibe to it, is because the song is about one man’s loneliness. In particular, it’s the kind of loneliness that’s borne from being heartbroken while living in an unfamiliar city. “Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile,” Costello sings, capturing the feeling of being an Englishman in New York.
It was a stroke of genius to use the archaic name of New York as the song’s title, since it really emphasizes the strangeness of the narrator’s situation. Without a familiar face to whom he can tell his troubles, the guy becomes a stranger even to himself: “Twice shy and dog tired because you’ve been bitten/Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten.”
Get Happy!! definitely features a Motown vibe on many of the songs, but Costello wisely knew enough not to get too carried away with some sort of unifying sound all the way through. Otherwise, an engaging pop ballad like “New Amsterdam” might not have gotten the green light. It’s inclusion makes the album a richer experience.
I can’t think of an occasion where Costello has written a song specifically about the trials and tribulations of life as a rock star on the road. Those songs, even when done well, tend to put up a barrier in front of the listener because the experience behind the song is specific to the performer. By contrast, anyone who has ever felt like they have no connection to the comforts of home can appreciate “New Amsterdam,” a lovely place to visit vicariously via Elvis’ pretty song even though you would never want to live there.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
(E-mail the author at email@example.com.)
As a songwriter, you know you’ve done your job when a song is so evocative that they make a movie based on it. Such is the case with “Highway Patrolman” which was reimagined by Sean Penn as The Indian Runner. Full disclosure: I’ve never seen this flick, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there’s no way it could have told the story half as well as Bruce did.
The story of Joe Roberts and his brother Franky epitomizes many of the themes that Bruce hit hard on Nebraska: The economic hard times that put such strain on everyday Americans; the pull of family even over one’s best intentions; the random, senseless acts of violence that tear society apart; and most of all, the impossible choices faced by ordinary human beings. Joe sets many of these themes up with that one simple line that says it all: “I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain’t no good.
Of course, that puts him in direct conflict with Joe, who became a police officer only after his farm went under. Luckily, crime is always in season, so he manages to scrape a living together, but his ne’er-do-well brother keeps getting in scrape after scrape, forcing Joe to shirk his duty for family’s sake. Joe’s love for his brother wins out over his frustration, as he sings about the fun times they have together in between calamities.
We know where this is all heading. Franky does some major damage in a bar fight, and Joe is called to the scene. The scene of him chasing his brother through the back roads has an undeniable cinematic appeal to it, but the anti-climax is no Hollywood ending. Joe waits ‘til his brother has a clear shot out of the country and lets him go, now complicit in his crimes and forever stained by his familial bonds.
Springsteen does a marvelous job embodying this character, hitting every beat from the dejection when relating his crimes to the hope and love when he sings about the good times. Notice that he ends with Joe stubbornly sticking to his credo: “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.” When he sings it that last time, it sounds like the character is trying to convince himself more than the listener.
It’s fitting that Johnny Cash did a version of this, because “Highway Patrolman” belongs in the firmament of evergreen songs with which troubadours can bewitch audiences into the endless future. So timeless are its themes, so compelling is the story, and, it must be noted, so infinitely difficult are the quandaries it presents.
(E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)