'Nebraska' at 40: Bruce Springsteen's masterpiece?
Hard to believe it's been 40 years since Bruce Springsteen basically invented lo-fi with his album "Nebraska." (That he's not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for lo-fi is a crime.) Most, even people who aren't necessarily avid Springsteen fans, are in agreement that it deserves its accolades. But is it Springsteen's greatest album? I made the below argument in my book "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums"; you can be the judge. I will say, that while we may not need yet another vinyl copy, there's no denying that it stands as a significant achievement among musicians in the rock era.
Released: September 30, 1982
Highest Chart Position: US 3 /UK 3
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
Coming on the heels of The River, Nebraska was probably the last thing anybody expected from Bruce Springsteen … maybe even Bruce Springsteen. In many ways it was a happy accident, although the word “happy” is an unlikely one to associate with Springsteen’s darkest album.
Famously recorded at home as a series of demos on a 4-track cassette recorder, the spare, brooding tracks apparently defied the E Street Band treatment. Instead, they were eventually released in their raw form, and the resulting album was hailed as a work of haunting genius.
“At a time when the pop-music of both America and England is dominated by cynical musicians whose success is based in part on the way they avoid dealing with the workaday world we all live in, Springsteen’s new songs make nearly everything else in the Top 10 sound shabby and weak-willed,” wrote Ken Tucker in the Philadelphia Inquirer upon the record’s release. “Nebraska is not music to dance to, or music to escape with; it’s music to confront.”
And for a certain type of fan – the kind less interested in the way his music taps into the cathartic power of rock ’n’ roll than in how it cuts through to the heart of the human condition – Nebraska remains the pinnacle of Springsteen’s work.
A bitter, stark contrast – by design – to what Reagan would call his “morning in America,” it’s Springsteen’s most adult effort, taking the relentlessness of Darkness on the Edge of Town and stripping it of whatever strands of hope may have come through that album’s defiant lyrics and potent accompaniment. Its characters are, for the most part, burdened by a crushing resignation that defies any ability to see past it to a possibly brighter future. There’s no cutting the pain from their hearts – for Nebraska’s denizens, the prognosis is terminal.
That’s clear from the first burst of echoing harmonica that starts off the album-opening title track, a deceptively tender first-person folk hymn based on the 1958 Starkweather murders. The image of a young girl “standing on her front lawn, just a-twirling her baton” seems almost idyllic, and then the song shifts almost immediately to the fateful car ride on which the narrator kills 10 innocent people – basically “everything in [his] path.” But it’s the song-ending declaration as to why he did it that winds up binding Nebraska together from start to finish: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
In some of the songs, that meanness comes in the form of circumstances that drive average people to take extraordinary measures that inevitably turn their situations even more dire. In “Atlantic City,” where about the only hope the debt-laden narrator can muster is that “maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” it’s painfully clear that the “little favor” he agrees to do is going to end badly, possibly disastrously. He seems to know it, but forges on anyway as if all other choices have simply evaporated, just as he does with the woman for whom his love’s grown cold.
Meanwhile, Ralph from “Johnny 99,” out of work and in danger of losing his house, kills a convenience store clerk in a botched robbery and winds up begging the judge for execution. Springsteen starts the song with a howling falsetto yell, and his breathless vocal timbre as he unspools the story is chilling, halfway between tears and panic.
As effective as “Johnny 99” is, though, it’s not half as haunting as “State Trooper,” a short masterpiece of moody desperation that, in its whispered delivery and relentlessly plucked guitar, perfectly captures the dread of a man on the run – ostensibly from the law but clearly just as much from himself. The only answer he has for the thing that’s “been botherin’ me my whole life” is a wordless, high-pitched wail that describes the plight of most of the tormented characters making their way through Nebraska’s desolate landscape.
Even more gripping than the crime-prone losers, though, are the people beaten down by everyday circumstances who are forced to just soldier on. The siblings in “Mansion on the Hill” who must continually contrast their own poverty with the wealthy residents behind steel gates on the edge of town, the estranged son who goes looking for his father too late in “My Father’s House,” the young boy embarrassed by his family’s “new used car” – these are people we all know, and they may even be us. In telling their stories, Springsteen tapped into something basic and primal.
Nebraska also marked a new level of literary imagery for Springsteen that foreshadowed the Steinbeck influence on 1995’s Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s hard to imagine a more thoroughly painted song character than Joe Roberts of “Highway Patrolman,” and the story of him and his wayward brother – so personal and so universal at the same time – is stunning in the way it builds its back-story before propelling to its spine-tingling conclusion. By the time Joe pulls over to the side of the highway to watch his fugitive brother disappear into the darkness, Springsteen has drawn you totally and completely into their world: You are on that road right there with him.
“Open All Night” offers the album’s one burst of defiant rock ’n’ roll, and it’s a rockabilly wonder, painting an eerily evocative picture of the early-morning Jersey Turnpike as a “lunar landscape.” But the album gets best summed up in the closing track, “Reason to Believe,” with its dead dog and deserted lovers. Unlike most other Springsteen heroes, the hope these people find is false: All that’s real is birth and death and the inevitable hardships in between.
One can only imagine what Nebraska sounded like among the offerings from Survivor, the Go-Go’s and Loverboy that populated the charts that fall – as Tucker pointed out in his review, it was the diametric opposite of the feather-light pop-rock that had already begun to dominate the early ’80s. That it managed to reach No. 3 on both the UK and US charts is a testament to the respect Springsteen had engendered as an artist – he was finally at the point where his fans were willing to follow him down darker, untested roads.
But the album’s eventual longevity can be attributed to its artistry, pure and simple – first and foremost the lyrical flourishes that anchor these songs so strongly in our consciousness. “They blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night,” he sings on “Atlantic City,” one of a series of unforgettable images, from the refinery’s glow of “State Trooper” to the sad echo of a horn “all down Michigan Avenue” on “Used Cars.”
But beyond the words, the songs’ provenance as demos wound up making them the perfect vehicles for Springsteen’s stories, which in and of themselves are unfinished and raw. The phrases that pop up repeatedly from song to song – “debts no honest man could pay,” “deliver me from nowhere” – speak to the fact that he intended to finesse these songs in the studio, but those idiosyncrasies actually wind up better connecting the tracks as part of a compelling whole.
And because Springsteen wrote them with a full-band treatment in mind, the songs on Nebraska benefit from accessible melodies sometimes lacking from his later solo works. In fact, most of these songs have been translated successfully into full-band versions in concert, so much so that it’s sometimes possible to forget their stark, lonely origins when they were first put to vinyl.
But that would be a shame, and if you find yourself doing that you should go back and spin the original versions. Like nothing else in Springsteen’s catalog before or since, Nebraska rolls out an intimate, wrenching portrayal of the American Dream gone awry that was only hinted at in his prior works. Here it’s fully realized, and it’s devastating.