The Boss needs no introduction, but I feel Nebraska does. This album was met with critical praise but it was never a commercial success like Born to Run (1975) or Born in the USA (1984), and I don’t think it ever could have. It was originally meant to be recorded with the E Street Band, but was chosen to be released as the demos they were. The subject matter is much like the rest of his work – the American blue collar man, but nearly all the stories here have a dead-end conclusions. It’s bleak outlook and acoustic production are why I think it never could’ve been as popular as his more accessible works.
The title track Nebraska is the story of Charles Starkweather and his murder spree in the late 1950s. It’s sung from his perspective, and it has the same disinterest and matter-of-factness that the movie Badlands (1973) has. Like the film, it’s quite haunting how he murders so many for seemingly no reason. I really love the harmonica on this track that thankfully shows up elsewhere on this album, and in the vinyl recording it really pops out at you. Atlantic City evokes the feeling of crushing debt, desperation, and endless hope in the American dream: that some day they can get lucky and be completely free. It revolves around the Mafia and the turbulence following the death of Philip Testa (The Chicken Man), and the narrator’s intent to head to Atlantic City to join the mob. This has some of my favorite lyrics:
“Down here, it’s just winners and losers
and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line”
It also has one lyric that pops up again and again in the album, a recurring motief: “But I got debts that no honest man can pay”. The first recurrence is on Johnny 99: a fast paced tale of a man who lost his job, went suicidal and robbed a bank, only to be sentenced to be 99 years and ended up pleading that the judge give him the electric chair. Springsteen’s excited playing on that bleak song is reversed to a crawl on the following song Highway Patrolman. This song really took a while to grow on me, and I feel it’s one of his best. I really love how this story is told, and how the chorus evolves along with it. It’s a song of brotherly love and family estrangement, that somehow feels like the happiest on this album.
State Trooper is perfect, and it feels like the apex of the album as well as the trio of songs featuring the law. Springsteen’s lyrics and delivery converge to give me chills every time on this track, especially with lyrics like:
“Maybe you got a kid
Maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I got
been botherin’ me my whole life”
Springsteen sings between a whisper and a whimper, and suddenly he shouts in such an otherworldly tone that scared me to death on my first listen. He repeats the shout at the end and it’s as if all the frustration and desperation of this character is perfectly encapsulated in it. A lot of the lyrics are echoed in the song Open All Night, but the mood is nearly the opposite, maybe this is the prequel. This is the most uplifting song on the album, the narrator has some of the same problems that other characters had but his outlook is focused on trucking ahead to the dawn. Reason To Believe is the most nihilistic Springsteen has ever been, detailing heartache after heartache, and laughing at how people find some reason to keep believing in good.
Like it’s been described, this is a challenging album – not for it’s production though. Bruce Springsteen’s Blues/Folk playing is quite soothing, but the stories sung here are bitter and hopeless. On albums like Nebraska I feel you can either take it as revolting and depressing, or intimate and relatable. Does it dampen your spirits or give you solace?