Monday, March 5, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part VI: Nebraska (1982)

Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers

And don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him 

Well I guess everything dies, baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Following a week's residency on Jimmy Fallon, Bruce Springsteen will drop his much anticipated 17th studio record tomorrow. Wrecking Ball (which I have already reviewed, over at!), is the best album Bruce has released since Born in the U.S.A., I think, and I found myself wavering between giving it a 9.5 and a perfect 10. Only time will tell if I'll be pleased with my choice of the former, but check out the review (I got offered to write for Rock Freaks in response to my review of fun.'s Some Nights). Also, stay tuned for more in depth thoughts on the record's songs and their stories here, probably sometime in the next week, but perhaps even further down the road, when I finally get through this Springsteen retrospective project. Anyway, since it's a big week for Bruce, I figured I'd try to knock out a few more of his records here, so without further ado, I give you his 1982 masterpiece Nebraska.

Immediately, Nebraska is strikingly different than anything Springsteen had ever done before (and anything he's done since, despite numerous attempts to replicate it's successes). Legend has it that, after his first top 10 hit with The River's "Hungry Heart," Springsteen retreated. While The River gave him his first taste of success in the mainstream pop music world, it was "Stolen Car," a dark, sparse, hopelessly sad storyteller piece, that would serve as the biggest indicator of where he was going when he sat down in his bedroom and recorded the Nebraska demos on a 4-track recorder. Later, Springsteen and the E-Street Band convened to record the material (I'd kill to get my hands on this version of the record), but something was lacking in the full band arrangements, and Bruce ultimately decided to release the tape he'd been "carryin' around in his pocket without a case for a couple of weeks" as the record.

Despite it's rather dubious origins, Nebraska has become one of the favorites of the Springsteen catalog, and I often see people online naming it among his best. In the modern age of music, Nebraska's lo-fi sound has influenced a slew of singer/songwriters, from Johnny Cash to Sam Beam, and the haunting atmosphere of the record completely turned the perception of Bruce on it's head, removing the iconic trademark of Clarence Clemons' saxophone and bathing Springsteen's characters in darker themes than ever before. Whereas Darkness on the Edge of Town was basically a sequel to Born to Run, with songs that told the tales of what happened to those characters after they realized that the American Dream wasn't as black and white as they had believed in their youth, Nebraska focuses on different characters altogether. Here, Springsteen hones in on the underbelly of American life, often focusing on criminals or the people whose lives they disrupt. The opening title track, accented by a mournful harmonica, tells the story of a young man who went on a killing spree back in '57 and '58, and pretty much shows us right away what this record is going to be with its slow-burn storytelling and sparse, acoustic instrumentation. Interestingly, the story also inspired a Terrence Malick film called Badlands, a title Springsteen had used as his opener a mere two albums before: perhaps it's on purpose, then, that the two songs couldn't be further from one another.

Where Springsteen's previous albums were chalk full of huge full-band moments and anthemic choruses, there isn't any of that on Nebraska. Choruses become refrains (like the gorgeous one that floats through "Highway Patrolman"), and the sole obvious "hook" belongs to "Atlantic City," which became the most well known song from the collection. It's also the best, perfectly balancing Springsteen's older melodic ideals with this album's stark atmosphere, and coming out with a song that, despite finding its basis in no more than three chords, is immediately memorable. "Atlantic City," much like the songs on Born to Run, depicts a couple's romantic escape to a promised land of sorts, only to find that the city is as dangerous, corrupt, and difficult as anywhere they've ever been. Mafia violence and involvement permeates every moment of the song, from the iconic opening line ("Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night"), to the second verse, detailing the rise of crime in the gambling circuit, all the way to the final lines above, where the desperate protagonist turns to crime himself in order to make his way on the mean streets. Just like "Meeting Across the River," the penultimate cut on Born to Run, "Atlantic City" is a masterclass in lyricism precisely because it cuts the story off just before the climax. In "Meeting," it was a man trying to talk his friend into helping him out with a heist of sorts. Here, it's a man in a similar situation, and whether the "favor" he's prepared to do is in connection with the mob or in defiance of it doesn't really matter: something in Springsteen's delivery lets us know that things aren't going to go as planned.

"Highway Patrolman" is one of the most fully realized story songs in the Springsteen catalog, something Sean Penn must have realized when he made a movie based on it with 1991's The Indian Runner. Springsteen weaves the tale of a cop and his brother, a notorious screw up who the protagonist feels obligated to protect. The song masterfully juxtaposes happy memories with the main plotline, where Frank, the brother, kills a man in a bar brawl and then flees the country, with the "Patrolman" in hot pursuit. Ultimately, the brotherly bond wins out, and he lets Frank get away, saying "man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good." Themes of family permeate numerous other songs on the record, from "Used Cars" to "My Father's House," all with similar sonic textures (a 4-track doesn't allow for too much variety), but all with lyrical content that ranks amongst Springsteen's most spellbinding, and all with a hypnotic delivery from the man himself that embodies the songs' characters with life and spark. And indeed, these characters are among Springsteen's most fleshed out and memorable: take the title character in "Johnny 99," who turns to crime after losing his job and being left with "debts no honest man can pay" (the same theme as "Atlantic City," right down to the lyric). In a robbery gone awry, the character kills a clerk, and gets sentenced to life in prison, only to ask instead for the death penalty. Or take the protagonist in "State Trooper," a paranoid criminal whose plea of "Mr. State Trooper, please don't stop me," serves as the song's refrain as he drives through the darkness of middle America. Perhaps it's the same character from "Stolen Car," the guy who was just hoping to get caught so that things in his life would change; perhaps it's a different person, a person who knows that if he gets pulled over, he'll have no choice but to pull the trigger yet again. It's likely that Springsteen fully intended to leave the connection rather ambiguous, and that he does so on numerous occasions throughout his career only makes his discography that much more riveting and rewarding to explore.

"Open All Night," like "Atlantic City" or "Johnny 99" is more of a stripped down rock song than it is a piece of folk or Americana, and it's perhaps for that reason that these songs have remained standbys in Springsteen's live sets more so than the ones that surround them. The song has a drive and edge that would not have felt out of place on the latter half of Born in the U.S.A., and for that matter, a foot-stomping rhythm that feels a bit like the first five tracks on his latest. It's also the only appearance of electric guitar on the record (or of amplified instrumentation at all), and would be notable for that reason alone, even if it weren't as solid and straight up enjoyable as it is. And while I think it ranks as one of Springsteen's weaker closers, "Reason to Believe" serves as a perfect conclusion to this set of songs. Much like the characters in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" or "Wreck on the Highway," the figures in "Reason to Believe" are beset on all sides by tragedy or misfortune, but as Springsteen sings in the refrain, "at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe." Despite the fact that Nebraska is Springsteen's most hopeless record to date, it ends with a song that is, at least partially, a hymn to human resilience, giving the record a satisfying arc, and making it that much more rewarding on repeat listens: in that sense, "Reason to Believe" is a terrific finale.

If Nebraska is Springsteen's most unique record, it's also his most challenging. Over the years, this record has confused me, moved me, frustrated me, and amazed me, sometimes all at the same time; I've ranked it everywhere from fifth to tenth in terms of his discography, and unlike most other record's in the catalog, there are some days when I'm just not in the mood for this one. Certainly, it's never obtained the level of respect or the sheer volume of plays that I've bestowed upon Born to Run, and I've never been able to wrap my head around the lists where I see it ranked above that album, which I think is the only completely flawless full-length work in the history of recorded music. I don't think it compares to the four records that preceded it, and I also think that The River's more downbeat moments did a similar type of darkness in a more effective way. All of that said, on the days when I feel truly in the mood for Nebraska, I can put it on and completely understand why it's Springsteen's second most revered album: I can fully see how brave it was for him to strip his sound down to its rawest and barest essentials; I can see why the lyrics of this record have been the subject of entire studies by "Springsteen scholars; I can certainly see why this record, more than perhaps any I really know, has an almost cult following; and mostly, I can understand why this record took Springsteen to another level in terms of how he was viewed as a songwriter, how this might be the record to thank for his undisputed legendary status (because really, could there possibly be a soul who dislikes Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., AND Nebraska?) So while it will never be my favorite Springsteen album, while I will almost always prefer to hear Springsteen's voice and lyrics with the full force of the E-Street Band behind them, Nebraska is an important piece of music history that I at very least respect, and one that, on its best days, I truly love.

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