Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska

Nebraska (1982)


1. Nebraska 2. Atlantic City 3. Mansion On The Hill 4. Johnny 99 5. Highway Patrolman 6. State Trooper 7. Used Cars 8. Open All Night 9. My Father’s House 10. Reason To Believe


Now that I think about it, Nebraska may be one of the most influential albums in the history of time. Not in terms of its influence on other musicians, though it certainly did popularize the concept of the “acoustic album” by an otherwise electric artist. No, I’m talking about its impact on rock critics. Has any album spawned more overused rock writer clichés than this one? “Stark,” “haunting,” “stripped-down,” and “lo-fi” are just a few of the ubiquitous adjectives that critics may well have used for the first time—fittingly—to describe Nebraska, but then have gone on to abuse horribly in the subsequent 35 years. Including me! I am part of the problem. You have my permission to chop off my fingers so that I can never type those words again.

You also have my permission to bring me a blueberry muffin. Go right ahead! I’ll wait here.

In fact, Nebraska is probably one of the founding documents of “Americana,” which has morphed into a meaningless catch all phrase to describe anything with, like, acoustic guitars, but I think was originally envisioned as a radio format for music that was “rootsier” and “more authentic” than the stuff on the pop charts (hey, there are a couple more well-worn rock critic clichés! I hope you guys aren’t playing the official Jeremy Etc. reader drinking game, or you’re gonna be tanked by the end of this review! This is opposed to the Jeremy Etc. content provider drinking game, which consists of me drinking heavily as I write my reviews). Now, I’ve already written at length about how going acoustic can be just as cynical a ploy as chasing pop stardom, and certainly has been for many singer-songwriters who have tried to emulate either or both the minimalist acoustic arrangements and blue collar verbiage Bruce employs on Nebraska. However, Nebraska itself was not some premeditated bid for roots cred. It was more of a happy accident, which is why it still stands up as a daring, practically experimental left turn for our boy Broocie.

If you don’t know the story behind the album, presumably because you’re not one of the annoyingly plentiful middle-aged white guys from the Northeast who seem to have Bruce’s entire biography memorized, I’ll lay it out for ya. Bruce recorded the ten songs that ultimately became Nebraska at home on a basic 4-track recorded, intending to use them as demos for the next E Street Band album. However, after actually hitting the studio and recording those songs with the full band, it was determined that the original demos were better so Bruce decided to release them as is. The result is a record that’s as steeped in the familiar Guthrie/Dylan folk storytelling tradition as it is a critical link in the chain of lo-fi avant gardeism more often associated with the likes of Suicide, Sebadoh, and Guided By Voices than, you know, multi-platinum international superstar Bruce Springsteen. But the fact that it is Bruce doesn’t make it any less artistically daring, even if the songwriting itself is as traditional as it gets.

In fact, the suboptimal audio quality is a big part of what makes the album so intriguing. Not only were all the songs recorded on a portable cassette recorder, but Bruce ran them through an Echoplex, thus endowing them with a ghostly delay effect as mysterious and lonesome as the unpopulated plains of the state the album gets its title from (not that I’ve ever been to them, or ever plan on going. Anyone who romanticizes freaking Nebraska is either lying about its virtues or, like me, has never been there). These atmospherics are further enhanced by the spare and subtle but crucial overdubs Bruce adds to his basic acoustic guitar-and-voice performances – a bit of mandolin or glockenspiel chiming away in the background makes all the difference in turning the performances on Nebraska from didactically straightforward folk songs into works of sonic art.

Even without those elements, though, the songs on Nebraska would still be highly compelling. This is Bruce at his absolute storytelling peak, drawing characters and creating settings with both a journalist’s knack for detail and a philosopher’s skill for exploring moral ambiguity and human fragility. “Atlantic City” and “Highway Patrolman” are absolute masterworks in these regards, both sprawling in scope and tightly focused in terms of character building, almost like miniature movies (and in fact, Sean Penn turned the latter’s sorrowful tale about a state cop forced to make a hard choice concerning his criminal brother, into The Indian Runner. This does not change the fact that Sean Penn is completely insane). And far from being one-noted , Bruce tackles his chosen themes, most of them inescapably heavy—death, murder, dire poverty, etc.—from different angles. The title track is a lilting character portrait that manages to humanize real-life serial killer Charles Starkweather without excusing his deeds—hell of a feat—while on “Johnny 99,” Bruce contrapuntally narrates the story of a (made-up) laid off factory worker-turned-killer with whooping humor atop an upbeat guitar/harmonica boogie. And best of all, these characters are not subject to Bruce’s usual redemptive arcs (other than, arguably, on “Reason To Believe,” though it’s certainly ambiguous whether Bruce’s ruminations on the neverending cycle of life and death are meant to be taken as hopeful or not). They just continue to sink further into their unfortunate predicaments. I view this positively because apparently I enjoy hearing about other people’s pain and do not want anyone to be happy. I may be a serial killer. I will look into this.

The only problem with Nebraska is that the format that makes it so unique (or at least made it so back in 1982) becomes limiting once Bruce’s melodies start to become sameier and duller on the album’s back half. The utterly generic Chuck Berry-esque choogle “Open All Night” and the dreary self-psychoanalysis “My Father’s House” in particular put a drag on things near the end of the record. But even if that hinders the album’s listenability a bit, it doesn’t change the fact that Nebraska is, taken as a whole, the boldest and most admirable music statement Bruce has ever made.

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