Now it seems fairly obvious as to why those of us on the ‘fringe’ of popular music love Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. In the independent music world, it seems almost commonplace for an artist to gain notoriety with a set of `demos,’ like Devendra Banhart or Sam Beam. Bruce Springsteen was at a time in his life when he didn’t necessarily need to record demos. He had just come off the double album, The River which spawned yet another hit single for the Boss in “Hungry Heart.” It would be two more years until Bruce would vault old time American rock and roll back into the forefront of American consciousness with Born in the U.S.A. But in between those monumental successes was a quiet, dark and disturbing album, recorded by Springsteen in his basement without the `E’ Street Band. More often than not, reviewers tend to make grandiose statements about artists or albums being essential when they’re really not. But if there is one album that I would surreptitiously place on every CD rack in every home in America, it is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
The opening title track is a bleak introduction to what would be a similarly bleak collection of stories set to acoustic guitar and harmonica. The song relates the tale of Charles Starkweather, the man who, with his 13 year-old girlfriend, killed 11 people (ten according to the song). As in most of the songs on Nebraska, Springsteen uses the first person, putting the listener into the minds and hearts of extremely troubled individuals. Starkweather tells his own story, from meeting Caril Ann Fugate to being executed in the electric chair. His reason for the tragedy is even more chilling, “Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” There’s very few artists who could pull off this kind of Midwestern noir acoustic tale, which for many first put Springsteen in the company of such greats as Dylan, Guthrie and Johnny Cash. “Atlantic City” is probably the best-known song from the album, which takes a grim view of the gambling town as a place of desperation. Again we find ourselves in the first person with a `down on his luck’ man who has `debts no honest man can pay,’ a sentiment echoed in “Johnny 99.” This character’s plight is so dire, however, that the chorus intimates death is probably not too far away.
The short story mode continues in “Mansion on the Hill,” an image much used throughout folk and country music. The lyrics evoke the words and style of writers such as Hemingway and his simplistic style, and Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote with their southern gothic imagery. The darkness keeps on coming with another courtroom tale in “Johnny 99,” the story of a laid off autoworker that kills a store clerk and pleads for the electric chair. “Highway Patrolman,” the longest song on Nebraska, emphasizes the meaning of family through yet another dark and depressing story. Sheriff Joe Roberts and his brother Franky live through hard times, but when Franky shoots a man, Joe must decide whether to put him away or let him go. Springsteen’s chorus can describe both Joe and Franky as he sings, “Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good.” “State Trooper,” a song inspired by one of the most depressing and disturbing songs of all time, Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” is, if not as shocking as the original, just as potent, especially with the Boss’ howls starkly contrasting with the quiet verses. The HBO show The Sopranos used this song to hauntingly end the first episode of the series. (Springsteen’s guitarist, Little Steven, actually left the E Street Band around the time he was recording Nebraska).
The album ends just as depressingly, but wondrously, as it begins in “Reason to Believe.” In it, Springsteen tells a total of four shorter stories of hopelessness (a man poking a dead dog with a stick, a woman left by a man, an old man dies as a baby is born, and a groom is left alone at the altar), making the title somewhat ironic. Springsteen as narrator tells us that he finds it `funny’ that people still find some reason to keep going. Not exactly the happiest of tunes, nor the most uplifting of albums, but that is not its point. Nebraska is like a Jim Thompson novel set to guitar. Its depiction of desperation, struggle, evil and darkness in the world is made palatable only by the sheer elegant and masterful way in which Bruce tells the stories. A depressing story told badly is just a depressing story. A depressing story told well is as compelling, if not more, than any other. No one knows this as well as Bruce Springsteen. Even some of his song with more of a mass appeal have a twinge of sadness in them, such as “Dancing in the Dark” (“I ain’t nothing but tired, man I’m just tired and bored with myself“) and “I’m on Fire,” (“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife baby edgy and dull and cut a six-inch valley through the middle of my soul.“) But even those songs had some hint of hope. In Nebraska there is no quarter asked and no quarter given. Springsteen quietly sings to us about real life and real life includes murder, theft, loneliness and hopelessness.
To this day, Nebraska remains one of the albums of which Springsteen is most proud. Many of its songs, especially “Atlantic City,” end up in live sets and greatest hits collections. Sub Pop Records even put out an entire tribute album just to Nebraska called Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. It doesn’t quite measure up to the original in tone or elegance, but is worth the asking price just for Johnny Cash’s version of “I’m On Fire,” a song recorded during the Nebraska sessions, but later placed on Born in the U.S.A. I was originally put off by many of Springsteen’s songs. I maybe didn’t delve deep enough into the lyrics of songs like “Glory Days” and “Born in the U.S.A.” But Nebraska brought me to the Boss in a way no other album could have. To this day it is my favorite Springsteen record and one of my favorite albums of all time. I am so enamored of this collection that I am still stymied by its appearance in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums issue behind no less than four other Springsteen albums. The truth is, he has performed no finer work than Nebraska, a stunning literary as well as a musical masterpiece that sets him in a league far beyond that of mere rock star and in to the realm of legend.
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks
Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads
Johnny Cash – Murder