Review Summary: There’s just a meanness in this world
The power of Nebraska lies in its characters. That’s not to say it doesn’t sound incredible—it does. Every tape hiss, dud note, and hesitant line adds to the atmosphere of decay and isolation. But this isn’t music about orgasmic finales or ear-worms. It’s about people.
Much is made of Nebraska’s backstory. Springsteen, exhausted by legal woes and touring, recorded a bleak set of folk songs on cassette with just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, a glockenspiel, and a synth over just a few days. The tracks didn’t translate with a full band or in the studio, so he decided to release the raw demos as a full album. It received little fanfare and was eclipsed by the runaway success of Born in the U.S.A. a few years later.
Does the myth of its origin play a critical role in the album's legacy? Yes. But the simple fact is that Nebraska is a tour de force of songwriting, word-smithing, and storytelling that’s unrivaled in rock.
The song structures, melodies, and arrangements are simple, often just three chords, vocals, and a harmonic. The simplicity is key to the album’s atmosphere, with writing that’s compelling enough to attract attention without feeling overwrought. Atlantic City, Johnny 99, and Up All Night are bangers with a sing-along choruses, but they never break the sense of tension that pervades the album.
The magic truly happens in the songs themselves. Each one is a miniature world, full of scenes, places, landscapes, fear, murder, and disappointment. The title track vividly recounts the story of Charles Starkweather and his killing spree through Wyoming. My Father’s House describes a nightmare full of demons and an absentee father. Highway Patrolman is a two-hour movie about strained family ties and duty condensed into a haunting five minute ballad. Nearly every line in every song is dripping with power— there’s not a wasted word or syllable in “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact.” It all hits, and it hits hard
The payoff of every song lies in the story. There’s a clip of Bruce Springsteen explaining how he wrote the title track. He explains that what ties the song together is the last line…
“They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”
Those words don’t just sound good. They describe something everyone has felt—condemnation. And almost every song delivers a similar moment of connection and empathy. You don’t just hear details of a situation rattled off. You come away feeling like you know these characters, or that you might just be one yourself.
The album isn’t perfect. Mansion on the Hill and Used Cars, while beautiful songs, doesn’t deliver in spades like the highlights. And Open All Night, while fun, strays just a touch too far from the overarching themes and storytelling of the album to end it with bang.
Overall, the lows are far outweighed by the depth and heart of the rest of the songs. Nebraska is a rewarding musical experience that grows more and more profound with each listen. It’s a glimpse into the meanness of the world, and the humanity of its characters.