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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: 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.

And here comes another self-conscious «career bomb». An album even darker in tone than Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and this time, with Bruce doing it all alone — just a man and his guitar, with a little harmonica on the side. A perfect counterbalance, one would think, to the basic bigness of The River and its all-out-rockin' arena hits: an album that would never be able to sell as many copies by its very nature, even if, on the strength of Bruce's already respectable re­pu­tation, it did reach #3 on the charts (not the singles that were culled from it, though).

If analogies are still allowed to be indulged in, then this is Springsteen's John Wesley Harding, surprising the populace with its humble, intimate scope just as they'd finally gotten used to the grand scale of the previous records. However, if Dylan at least actually came from an original acoustic folk background, Springsteen's prowess with the guitar-harmonica schtick was previous­ly largely confined to occasional songs like ʽMary Queen Of Arkansasʼ: the man was anything but a moody six-string loner, and although his troubadour nature always hinted that something like this might one day appear on the horizon, I guess it still took most people by surprise when he emerged with the actual results.

But while these results are generally good, the project on the whole suffers from the obvious: a lack of mystery. Suppose that you have never heard a solo acoustic Springsteen album — now close your eyes and try to think real hard what such an album would probably sound like. Some folk melodies, some country waltzes, a bit of blues, maybe a touch of rockabilly, right? Strong, friendly, masculine, but tired, disillusioned, and weather-worn vocals? Lyrical themes that cover issues like poverty, depression, crime, maybe a little nostalgia, and properly mix desperation with just a spoonful of hope so that nobody kills oneself in the end? Everything sincere, passionate, and catchy, but probably not very imaginative or unpredictable?

Yep, this is Nebraska all right, even if I cheated and formulated these questions after listening to the album. Now as proof that the record «sucks» this would, of course, be laughable: formula is formula, and most artists live and die by the formula anyway. The problem is that it takes a great deal of skill and effort to make a minimalistic record like this that would truly stand out — and this one, for the most part, stands out just because Springsteen stands out. But do the songs stand out? What about the songs?

In my own humble opinion, there are only two songs on this record that have a special «pull» to them. ʽAtlantic Cityʼ ended up being arguably the most famous one, and for good reason: it is the other side of the ʽBorn To Runʼ coin, another desperately determined attempt to escape, but this time realising all too well that the escape takes place in the direction of Hell, since Heaven has been closed off tight — and this psychological mix of near-weeping desperation with clenched-teeth determination is brilliantly carried over by the vocals. Live, the Boss would turn it into a grand ten-minute E Street Band-backed anthem, with the entire arena chanting "put your make­up on, fix your hair up pretty / and meet me tonight in Atlantic City" as if celebrating a new begin­ning, but, as usual, there is quite a bit of irony here.

My personal favorite, however, is ʽState Trooperʼ, which carries the minimalist vibe of the al­bum to a logical conclusion — two chords altogether, somehow sufficient to generate a spooky, tense atmosphere, and nervous mumbled vocals from which we gather that the protagonist is probably guilty of something (most protagonists on Nebraska are guilty of one thing or another) and that "Mr. State Trooper" might actually get it if he tries to stop our guy. It's all in that tension — three minutes of incessant D-major-A-minor reflecting the relentlessness of the pulse, and then, right before the fade out, the tension is released with a single, short, well-placed scream that will have you jumping out of the chair... yes, one of these moments that still have me jumping after all these years (like the loud band opening on The Wall).

These two tracks, the way I see it, show a certain amount of divine inspiration, and confirm that Nebraska should by no means be considered as nothing but the result of stylistic calculation. Un­fortunately, the rest of the songs seem fairly pedestrian in comparison. The title track is basically just a generic murder ballad — the story of a serial killer and his girlfriend, Badlands in four and a half minutes, concluding with a strand of rather cheap «folk wisdom»: "They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world" really doesn't cut it when you hear it from the lips of a supposedly literate singer-songwriter rather than some ano­nymous pre-war folk balladeer. Nostalgic musings like ʽMansion On The Hillʼ and ʽMy Father's Houseʼ have nothing but the unmistakable tone of Bruce's voice to recommend them. And ʽOpen All Nightʼ sounds like one of them clichéd rockabilly rockers from The River that would cer­tainly have benefited from a full band sound, if it cannot already benefit from innovative song­writing. And so on and on and on.

What makes it worse is that, despite all the superficial «humility», it is clear that Springsteen him­self must have felt pretty assured about the strong reactions these songs would cause — other­wise, there would be no need to wrap it up with ʽReason To Believeʼ, a tune that largely exists with the sole purpose of «providing hope» after the general bleakness of the record is supposed to wear you down and make you lose your faith in the human race and all. Yes, the world is just this one big Nebraska place where people lose jobs, lovers, health, and confidence, become crooks, hitmen, and serial killers, but don't worry that much, because "still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe". Credo quia absurdum. Hope that helps, folks. Do not begin reaching out for your razors and cyanide capsules just yet.

Because of the individual greatness of ʽAtlantic Cityʼ and ʽState Trooperʼ, I am that close to a positive rating, but a thumbs up here could be taken as a sign of my belief in Springsteen as a successful folk singer-songwriter, and I do not have any "reason to believe" this. At least this re­cord is livelier, wittier, and less thoroughly drenched in banality than the truly abysmal Ghost Of Tom Joad, awaiting us further on down the line, but overall, I think I'd rather have Woody Guthrie — who, as a poet, may have been far cruder and blunter than Springsteen, but who at least knew better how to separate his big ego from the struggle for working class rights.

9 comments:

  1. We all have different sides to us. In Springsteen's case there's Bruce the rocker, Bruce the romantic and Bruce the working class poet (among other selves). In this album he indulged that third self fully - everything stripped back, basic, just him and a cheap guitar and harmonica telling it like it is.

    There are things I like about this album - chief of all, Atlantic City, which is one of my favourite Springsteen songs and in some ways one of the best songs of its type ever: moody, desperate, pleading behind one of his best melodies. Also the tunes are deceptively good in general. Like the best songwriters, melodies came effortlessly to him, at least until he'd exhausted his musical palette (lets face it here we're not dealing with a guy who experimented much with weird chords or alternate tunings).

    On the whole though, I think it's a good but not great album. The reason is that it's a little too obvious, too attention-seeking: there are too many songs about serial killers, loners and desperados here. It's in a way a young person's (which he still was I guess) idea of subject matter for a stripped down album and it suffers for not being ordinary enough. Why not write songs about ordinary, mundane lives, about the quiet desperation and dashed dreams, set to great melodies and a yearning vocal? I guess because he thought no-one would be interested unless he wrote about twisted, perverted folk - not really defined by being working class at all, despite the packaging. After all, do you really go on a rampage and kill everyone in sight just because you lost your job? No - you do it because you lost your mind.

    For me, although I've only heard it once, The Ghost of Tom Joad works a lot better because he wasn't trying to reach for subject matter that would just grab people's attention. I notice the put down in the review by the way but to my recollection it was a long way from abysmal, and not as stripped down either. Speaking of which, its' a style you can only pull off if the tunes are memorable, which on the whole they are in Nebraska.

    At any rate, there'll always be Atlantic City.

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  2. No mention of Highway Patrolman? Belongs in the same sentence as AC and ST, in my view.

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  3. When I was 8 years old I was really liked 'Born In The USA', and figuring all Springsteen albums sounded similar, persuaded my Dad to buy me the Springsteen album preceding Born In The USA, that album being Nebraska. Well, listening to Nebraska at 8 years old screwed me up huge! Thanks Boss for scarring my childhood!

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  4. I'm not sure "Reason to Believe" is solely intended to "provide hope." Every verse in that song describes a very bleak story, so the chorus could just as easily be viewed as indicating the absurdity and pointlessness of the "belief." Even the phrasing, "people find some reason to believe," already implies that there isn't really any good reason. The music is the only reason why it still comes across as "hopeful."

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    1. Dead on. Yet another example of the curiously oversimplified version of Springsteen one encounters over here.

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    2. Listened to that song again and I have to admit it's excellent. Definitely more bitter than sweet, and almost up there with Atlantic City . By far and away the two best songs on the album.

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  5. Totally agree about Reason To Believe. I don't hear it as hopeful at all, more like scornful really. And Highway Patrolman is as good as it gets.

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  6. I am amazed at George's capacity to review music so steadily. Great stuff! Anyway, I do think that Reason to Believe is not necessarily optimistic. Indeed, interpretation is up to the listener, and I agree with Traveller and Robert Kelly that there is bitterness and irony to it, not necessarily a straightforward message that people indeed have "reason to believe" ...

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