In this review: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (Columbia, 1982).
You don’t have to be big to be a giant. This album proves that.
Any album released between 1980’s Titan The River and the superlative 1984 Born in the USA would have a difficult time getting noticed. But not Nebraska. In fact, I think this disc is the definition of why Springsteen is the Boss.
It’s just him. His words, his voice, his guitar, and about three other tracks of overdub, all of which he did. I know Springsteen caught a lot of criticism early in his career for not being as good a songwriter as Bob Dylan. There might be some truth in there (I’m sure Bruce’s Nobel prize is still in the post or something), but then then you actually listen to the thing. Springsteen isn’t being austere for effect. He was laying down demo tracks to record with the E Street Band and only afterwards stepped back to see a full album. If your demo tracks are that hot then just wow.
I’ve never been to Nebraska. But I’ve been to a lot of places that sound a lot like where Springsteen is singing about. Driving through Pennsylvania’s rust belt on the way to and from my grandparents, looking at the post industrial horrors of western New York State, and in the auto town where I grew up I could see all of these things and knew I’d met most of these people.
Listening through Nebraska I was reminded of a poem by Constantine Cavafy called ‘The City’. In it, the first stanza talks with the voice of someone who is desperate to leave a city where they feel they have wasted their life. Instinctively, they know that their only hope of redemption comes from breaking the cycle and starting anew elsewhere. The second stanza is a mirror of the first. But this time, the voice is of a commentator saying in no uncertain terms that the first voice is doomed to failure. The wasted life wasn’t due to location but rather to the person themself. They will fail not because of any external factors but because the failure is inside of them then, now, and forever.
Springsteen’s view of the world is exactly like that. The protagonist of ‘Atlantic City’, for example, tries to lead an honest life but slips back into the familiar and fatalistic when the chips go down. The best he can look for is the hope that everything that dies somehow will come back, even if he’s unclear about they might come back to. Or, in ‘The Highway Patrolman’, Jo Roberts can’t find wholeness in his corner of the world; if he does his job then he betrays his brother but loyalty to family could jeopardise what gives him stability. The halves can never be made whole.
Springsteen has never shied away from the difficult or the uncomfortable in his music. It takes a real talent and chutzpah to put these tracks out there, though. The fact that this album is still in print, 30+ years later, shows that we need more straight up music telling things we don’t really want to know.