Like most great art, there was a great deal of happenstance surrounding the creation of Nebraska. The record originally started life as a collection of demo tracks, intended to be performed with the E Street Band. However, the recording sessions were unfruitful, with the band seemingly unable to capture the raw essence of the original recordings. Eventually, Springsteen decided to release the demo recordings as the final cut, giving birth to one of the most stimulating records ever to be released on a major label.
Though universally respected as a songwriter, even Springsteen’s biggest fans would admit that his lyrics, particularly in the early years, often verged on saccharine, an issue which was compounded by the syrupy production of earlier hits such as Hungry Heart and Born to Run. On Nebraska, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The record’s musical production is remarkably sparse by Springsteen’s standards, consisting mainly of guitar and vocals with a smattering of keys. This new musical approach is rewarding in and of itself, and, crucially, means that your attention is focused squarely on the lyrics and the stories within them. The pairing of sparse, percussion-free soundscapes with exquisitely bittersweet lyrics are what make Nebraska Springsteen’s most compelling record.
Of course, the album remains true to Springsteen’s favourite subject matter – the plight of the working man. However, instead of the defiant, burning optimism of Born to Run or Badlands, the lyrical themes on Nebraska take a much more resigned tone. Instead of the protagonists either taking pride in their lot or going out in a blaze of glory, most simply glumly accept that they are fighting a losing battle. This grim resignation and eventual decline, as much as we might hate to admit it, is much more true to life, and that’s what makes Nebraska so compelling.
The opening title track wastes no time in delving into the dark subject matter that defines the record, narrating the reflections of a mass murderer and his young female accomplice. The protagonist is unrepentant – crucially, not out of defiance, but out of apathy. Such is the narration, the murderous protagonist is not demonised, nor glorified as an antihero. He simply accepts his fate, and offers no justification or rationalisation for his crimes, finishing ‘they want to know why I did what I did/Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world’. This is a theme that threads through the entire record – there is no theatrical tragedy, no blaze of glory; just a subdued acceptance that their faults protagonists’ wrongdoings will be punished, and their struggles will go unrewarded.
In stark contrast to the album’s hit-studded predecessor The River, there were only two singles taken from Nebraska. The lead single, Atlantic City is a classically Springsteenian depiction of a working man in above his head, desperately seeking one last throw of the dice, whatever the consequences. The second, Open All Night, is a percussion-free rock & roll swagger about the monotonous working life of a trucker. While it’s arguably the record’s weakest cut, it’s not hard to see why Columbia plumped for this as a single, when other options on the album were such candidly harrowing depictions of hardship, loss, regret, and death.
Nebraska’s most emotionally-compelling tale is that of Highway Patrolman, the story of Joe Roberts, a straight-and-narrow road cop looking out for his volatile, self-destructive brother Frankie, ultimately accepting that he is a lost cause and allowing him to flee justice. The song balances the sweet emotions expressed towards his brother with his stark realisation that no one, not even him, can save Frankie from himself. It is this tussle between a fragile optimism and acquiescence that defines the lyrical essence of this record. Even the closing track, Reason to Believe, is profoundly bittersweet. The song is ostensibly a celebration of resilience and the human spirit; a musically-upbeat relief to the preceding gloom. But on closer inspection, it feels very much like a parting shot that perfectly bookends the narrative of the record – a sardonic scoff at the foolhardiness of man.
In many ways, Nebraska was a precursor to Springsteen’s 1995 effort Ghost of Tom Joad – a stripped-down exploration of the lifelong struggles of the working classes. However, although the latter record had its fair share of great songs, and stands amongst Springsteen’s best work, it could never quite match the urgency, intensity, and raw emotion of Nebraska. Indeed, it’s tough to think of any record that has.
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