Review Summary: Springsteen hits the road looking for inspiration and finds a country lost and adrift five years after Vietnam and on the verge of Reaganomics. Muderous, cold, and bleak, Nebraska captures the pain and turns it into timeless songs for the ages. EssentialNebraska by Bruce Springsteen is #224 on Rolling Stone Magazines list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
And its a demo tape. "A demo tape," you say? Well yes, a demo tape. Number 224 on Rolling Stone Magazines top 500 albums of all time is a demo tape. How could this be, you may be thinking? Well, as with many great things (or at least some great things) sometimes greatness is accidental and unexpected. You never see it coming. Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is just like that.
Part of the collection of songs originally written for the album that would eventually become Born In The USA, the songs of Nebraska are orphans that couldn't quite find a home or fit in elsewhere. Trying the songs out with The E Street Band initially only to realize they weren't suited well to the full band treatment, Bruce was looking for a mood
with these songs. Thing was he had already captured it and he knew it. The whole thing was in the back pocket of his jeans on a $5 cassette tape that was recorded in his basement. The question was how to duplicate it.
Going into the studio once more only this time alone, he then set out to simply record the songs in a proper studio with the proper equipment and deliver an album of acoustic songs to the record company. But given the studio treatment the album lost it's dark edge and foreboding tone of the original to the point that the songwriter felt the songs lost their impact. Merely a copy of an original. Frustrated, his manager and close friend Jon Landau suggested he simply turn in the expected record just as it is. Straight from his back pocket. And so Nebraska was finally born.
A dark folk album of sorts, the title track kicks things off and it's clear from the start this is not going to be typical Springsteen fare. While not a complete departure for the singer and songwriter, it's bleak lyrics of a murderous man on a killing spree and his girlfriend who goes along just for the ride is nonetheless as unforgiving a song as Bruce had ever recorded up to this point. The music is very quiet here, as it is on much of the album, letting the story be put front and center and providing no easy out for the listener. It's a chilling tale that provides no easy answers to it's troublesome subject matter or for the characters involved, and its a theme Springsteen would touch on again and again throughout the record. The next cut, "Atlantic City", livens things up a little musically, adding touches of mandolin and glockenspiel to the mix and allowing a little hope to seep into it's desperate tale of financial ruin, dreams gone bad, and romantic commitment, while the song that follows, the tender and reflective "Mansion On The Hill" lulls the listener into a comfortable position with it's tale of childhood dreams and soft, compassionate vocals. But while this album does have brief moments of hope and reason to believe in something, most tracks resemble the next two songs on the record, and they go a long way in establishing exactly what the songwriters intentions are regarding this album. Johhny 99, with it's train whistle vocal intro and nervous guitar whip things up into a near frenzy with it's tight story of a man on the verge of losing everything and turned to a life of crime, and the cinematic "Highway Patrolman". Just under six minutes in length, Highway Patrolman is as fully realized a story song as Bruce has ever written. "My name is Joe Roberts/I work for the state/I'm a sergeant out of Burnsville, Barracks #8/ I always did an honest job/As honest as I could/I got a brother named Frankie/And Frankie ain't no good" the song starts. And from that point on the listener is simply compelled to see it through. Ultimately a song of brotherly love and family commitment at any and all cost, Springteen weaves a story as elaborate and fully realized as any Hollywood screenwriter would be hard pressed to pack into a full length film over the course of this six minute song, and its quiet, thoughtful music and compassionate vocals are careful to never get in the way of the words or tale. Quite simply songwriting and musical storytelling at its very best.
Continuing down this bleak path for the second half of the record, "State Trooper" picks up where Highway Patrolman left off (with Sargeant Joe Roberts letting his no good brother's taillights disappear into the distance after a pursuit) and puts us right into the car with Frankie. "License, registration / I ain't got none / But I got a clear conscience / About what I've done" our thief in the night professes. The entire song has a low, desperate sound and feeling to it, Springsteen's guitar reduced to a muted riff and his shadowy vocals leading the way. And if the listener needs to be told what all the trouble on this record is about you can find it here and in these lyrics: "Maybe you got a kid /Maybe you got a pretty wife/The only thing I got/Been bothering me my whole life" Bruce sings matter of factly into the mic, and thats as close to an explanation we get so far as giving rhyme or reason for these people falling over the edge and past the point of return. And it is indeed this matter of fact treatment that gives these songs weight and substance. This is the way things are, the songwriter seems to say. There is nothing to question or query. Its just life. And life can be dirty.
Softening the desperate blows once again heading toward the close of the album however, "Used Cars" gives us a tale of simple childhood dreams in the same vein as Mansion On The Hill did earlier on the album, and "Open All Night" finds Bruce picking up his trusty Telecaster for the only real rock song on the record (save for Johnny 99) and takes us for a spirited ride across Jersey while his subject struggles to make time to see a late night love interest. 'Radio is jammed up with gospel stations / Lost souls calling long distance salvation / Hey Mr. Deejay won't you hear my last prayer / Hey ho rock n roll deliver me from nowhere" Springsteen howls into the mic, and so a bit of redemption might be possible for his luckless losers after all. Even if just in song. And closing the album with perhaps one of the best songs in his entire repertoire, "Reason To Believe" offers no solutions or answers to what has gone before, it simply marvels at the strength and faith it takes to believe enough in anything to make it to another day. Even if nothing shows a sign or gives a reason why you should. Taking a look at the ultimate hope and hopelessness that life often brings, its cycle of birth, sickness, disappointments, despair, and eventual death, it once again offers no answers. "Struck me kind of funny/Seemed kind of funny, sir indeed/How at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe" Springsteen muses while describing personal pain and hardships that might bury you but for the little faith in your pocket. And so life, even for the more downtrodden among us, is given purpose to continue another day.
Written at a time when Vietnam vets were settling in and settling down after their return home several years earlier, inspired by the film Badlands and the true life events of a murderous couple on a killing spree which inspired the film, and filtered through the eyes of an artist looking for the heart of his county in Reagans hard, cold America, Nebraska is the kind of near masterpiece of sharp inspired songwriting and understated performance that is not easily captured or documented when too much thought or detail is added to the mix. Often favorably compared to the darkest and most thoughtful work of Johnny Cash yet with a voice all its own, it serves as a chilling, stark, and cold soundtrack to a country that was just waking up to itself and its sins after a couple of long hard decades, and shines a light on the consequences our actions can have on the individual lives of what were once some of its strongest people. Unflinching, unafraid, and artistically bold and forceful, Nebraska is an album that finds Bruce Springsteen growing as a storyteller and quieting his voice to let the bad things in. An album so strong it cannot be duplicated, imitated, or even re-recorded, it stands even today as one of this artists best albums and has a timeless quality all its own. Original, dispairing, and as masterfully constructed a set of songs as Bruce has ever released, its a must listen for any fan of raw, barebones, and unpretentious musical storytelling at its best. And any other music fan, for that matter.