Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
Release Date: September 30, 1982
Record Label: Columbia
Bruce Springsteen's 1982 release Nebraska is probably the release that Columbia Records was looking for when they signed a young and unproven Springsteen in the early 1970s. Although the record came about a decade later and it was Springsteen's sixth studio album, Columbia probably isn't too disappointed with how the whole Springsteen experiment played out.
The story behind Nebraska is not one that is known very well outside of the Springsteen faithful. Basically, The Boss recorded demos of an album that he meant to record with the E Street Band on a 4-track at home. When he went into the studio and the entire band recorded the album, Springsteen and his producers felt it didn't translate right. The end result was the actual releasing of the demos, as recorded on a 4-track in Springsteen's home. Let The Boss tell you about it himself.
I got a little Teac four-track cassette machine, and I said, I'm gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin' 'em, then I'll teach 'em to the band. I could sing and play the guitar, and then I had two tracks to do somethin' else, like overdub a guitar or add a harmony. It was just gonna be a demo. Then I had a little Echoplex that I mixed through, and that was it. And that was the tape that became the record. It's amazing that it got there, 'cause I was carryin' that cassette around with me in my pocket without a case for a couple of week, just draggin' it around. Finally, we realized, "Uh-oh, that's the album." Technically, it was difficult to get it on a disc. The stuff was recorded so strangely, the needle would read a lot of distortion and wouldn't track in the wax. We almost had to release it as a cassette. [quote taken from a 1984 interview in Rolling Stone via the wonderful Wikipedia.]
I can't even.
Considering the almost lackadaisical nature the Nebraska tape was treated with, added complexities of transferring the demos to a format that could be released in mass quantities and the fact that Springsteen just had to have the balls to actually release demos recorded with cheap equipment, it's something of a miracle that Nebraska as we know it even exists.
The resulting record, however, showcases some of Springsteen's finest songwriting. It kind of seems like I say something along those lines in every review. Although I personally don't consider Nebraska to be a top-level Springsteen record (seriously, I imagine when I have kids I'll have an easier time picking which of them I like best), many diehards consider it to be one of his best works. The thing that stops me from spinning this record endlessly isn't the production, but rather the style of the record. Springsteen trades away his rock and roll stylings for an eerie, haunting folk tinge, one that paces lyricism of pure despair.
While Darkness On The Edge Of Town was a dark record, and while The River had plenty of dark material on it, there is almost no hope on Nebraska whatsoever. Whatever Springsteen was going through when he wrote the 10-track album is something that forever impacted his legacy as a musician. Ranging from the opening title track, which tells the story of a serial killer over an acoustic guitar and a wailing harmonica, to the closing "Reason To Believe," which all but mocks religion, there aren't many rays of light shining on Nebraska.
"Johnny 99" is a bluesy number that tells the story of a man who is sentenced to 99 years in jail for a killing a night clerk, and instead of taking the jail time he tells the judge to sentence him to death. "Highway Patrolman" continues the criminal theme of the record, introducing us to a police officer who constantly turns his back on his brother when he breaks the law. The intense "State Trooper" is the soundtrack to a supposed fugitive on the run on the New Jersey turnpike, with repeated pleas of "Mister state trooper, please don't stop me."
The brilliance of these bleak songs comes out in Springsteen's guitar work, including some of the most emotive guitar parts he has ever written. Springsteen has always had a knack for not just telling stories, but giving listeners almost tangible characters to relate to. Without a lot of musicianship to distract us, we become even more intimate with Springsteen's troubled projections. The simplicity of the musicianship is something that adds to this version of Nebraska - but I'm sure I'm not the only one who wants to hear the fully recorded full-band version that's lying in a vault somewhere. You can't really say Springsteen made the wrong choice with which version to release, though, as the record peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
Another song worthy of mention is "Atlantic City," a track that has gone on to receive warm full-band renditions at live shows. It's the obvious choice for a single, as it's really one of the only accessible songs on the record from a mainstream standpoint, but it was only released as a single in the United Kingdom. Nebraska is a record that appeals to a lot of music fans who might not enjoy the rest of Springsteen's work as much. Curiously enough, it has so many intrinsic qualities that diehard Springsteen fans consider it one of his best works as well. Taking into account the music that Springsteen released before and after this, the released product of Nebraska is clearly not something that should have happened. The full-band version probably fits the bill as the correct midpoint between The River and Born In The U.S.A., but really, who cares about the full-band version? What listeners got, and what turned into legend, was a one-of-a-kind Springsteen release that we didn't see him successfully replicate until Devils And Dust over two decades later.
Notable Fact: Ranked No. 224 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums ever.
A good album, no doubt, but nowhere near his best, imo, and probably the closest and Bruce gets to being "overrated". I love this album for it's storytelling and because it has a handful of my all time favorite Bruce songs (Atlantic City, Johnny 99, Highway Patrolman) but overall, it's a weaker album than E-Street Shuffle, Born to Run or Darkness, and doesn't have as many strokes of perfection as The River does. It's probably because it's such a far cry from my favorite Bruce style (huge and anthemic, with the E-Street band) that this sits as my least favorite record of the first seven, but that's not to say I don't still love it, it's just never gotten as much play as the others, for me.