Columbia Records, 1982
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/13/2000
Look at the cover of Nebraska and you can almost hear the hush of the desolate highway the driver is traveling on. That hush reflects the quiet moments in this album, recorded only on a 4-track. That hush can also be heard from critics who, until then, wrote off Bruce Springsteen as a hopeless Dylan-wannabe.
Springsteen has always written about the common man/woman who is trapped by a prison far more powerful than Folsom or Attica. He refers to the trappings of small town life; how people either rot staying in a crippling existence of monotony or burn out trying to get away. However, his legendary backup band, the E Street Band, and Springsteen's uncanny ability to write a memorable chorus typically dispelled people from looking further within his songs for meaning.
No such mistake needed to be made with Nebraska. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a 4-track, Springsteen opted not to record with the E Street Band. He also opted to sharpen his character profiles. I can't imagine what the record executives thought when they heard the title track. In a simple, detailed account, Springsteen tells the story of Charlie Starkweather, one of the granddaddies of modern serial killers. "Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor head back/ You make sure my pretty baby is sittin' right there on my lap," Springsteen's voice doesn't laud or condemn Starkweather. He just tells the story in all its chilly, barren setting.
Springsteen's status as a songwriter would have been elevated with that single song. However, he continues his vivid portraits throughout the rest of the album. A man tries to calm his woman's fears about trying to keep a roof over their heads in "Atlantic City," a man battles insomnia and a hard ass supervisor in "Open All Night." Perhaps the most chilling visual Springsteen paints us is on "Johnny 99."
The character in "Johnny 99" gets drunk to alleviate his depression after he loses his job. In a stupor, he guns down a night clerk and gets apprehended by an off-duty cop. In a heartbreaking climax, the character tells the judge, who gave him life, "Then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time/ And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line." Springsteen then lets out a chilly cry and the harmonica kicks in.
In one of my earlier reviews, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, I described the characters in the album as people who were on the verge of having the bottom fall out from under them. In comparison, the characters in Nebraska have already experienced the bottom falling out and have fallen through to another bottom that few people know about.
There is some hope for most of the characters in Nebraska. Repeated prayers of "Hi ho, silver-o, deliver me from nowhere," can be heard on multiple songs. And radio and telephone lines stretch out like a row of crucifixes is another metaphor that Springsteen incorporates throughout the album. Salvation through rock: If one artist can do that, it is Springsteen. The final track, "Reason to Believe," even has Springsteen singing hopefully, yes, you guessed it, "Still at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe."
Nebraska may not be played as much, or at all on radio, but you do not have to go far to hear its influences. You can hear "State Trooper" being played during the finale of the first season of "The Sopranos." A movie, made by Sean Penn, was based on the song, "Highway Patrolman." The Cowboy Junkies do a wicked cover of that song on their double-live album. And Sub-Pop just released an entire tribute album to Nebraska with Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.
Nebraska is the work of an artist who still had something to prove to doubters. His next album, Born In The U.S.A., would be the pop-savvy album that record execs were hoping the Jersey artist could deliver. However, Nebraska would forever change the course of the rest of his albums. Just listening to some of the lyrics in Tunnel Of Love, Born In The U.S.A. and Lucky Town, Springsteen may have played ball to sell albums, but his lyrics are unmistakable in their uncompromising nature. True to that form, when then President Ronald Reagan wished to use " Born In The U.S.A. as a campaign slogan, Springsteen announced in concert that he doubted Reagan ever heard one song off of Nebraska.
Springsteen would obviously release a companion to Nebraska with The Ghost Of Tom Joad in 1995; a great album unto itself. However, Nebraska stands alone as Bruce Springsteen's finest recording. Few artists as big as Springsteen would have dared to release such a bleak album as his popularity was steamrolling toward superstardom. Its unfortunate that the album is only just now getting the true praises it so richly deserves.