Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Bruce Springsteen NebraskaNebraska


“You wanna know why I did what I done/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  These are the final words of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” the first track on his 1982 album of the same name.  If you’ve heard or even become a fan of Nebraska, it likely took a while to remember and warm up to this song – just a quiet, plaintive guitar melody and lightly vibrant harmonica that slowly reveals itself as a tale of murder.  Taken from the tale that inspired Terrence Malick’s equally surface-dispassionate 1973 movie Badlands, the supposed blandness of that melody underscores that meanness, and our powerlessness to affect it.  Sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.


The album’s second song, “Atlantic City,” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, but I should do my best to avoid labeling “one of Springsteen’s best,” because that label misses the point.  There’s a quality to the song that serves as contrast to “Nebraska,” and using the two songs to open the record is exactly the contrast Springsteen wanted to sing about – “Nebraska” sings of the quiet madness that exists – killing sprees and ferocity that cannot be defeated.  On the opposite end – mind you, still with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica – “Atlantic City” is a tale of total economic desperation.  “Down here there’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” 


“Atlantic City” is a story of a man who has “debts no honest man can pay” and decides to do some not honest deeds to compensate.  His world is full of men getting blown up, houses burning down, cops who can’t compete, and a world going to hell, so a man, desperate to survive, tries not to get caught on the wrong side of that line.  Where “Nebraska” takes you some time to get along its strumming, psychotic structure, “Atlantic City” plugs you instantly inside the desperation of normal, lost, struggling Americans.  A song of class and anxiety, stitched together with the hope of innocence and release – “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City” like a beacon in the night, a dream that seems impossible and enormous.


Nebraska is an album length exploration of these twin themes – desperate, ordinary people on their last breath of sanity, and a madness that creeps along calmly and cannot be defeated.  The songs take these varying approaches – sadness and impossible dreams running so closely with the decision to do very bad things.  “Mansion On The Hill” takes a view of a mansion nearby that’s like gorgeous scenery, an idea of perfection that’s as distant as the moon.  It sits on the album next to “Johnny ’99,” a song of a killer driven by his economic desperation, repeating that line “Judge, I got debts no honest man can pay.”  There’s the “Highway Patrolman,” an honest man who helps his “no good” brother escape the confines of the law because “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.”


That Highway Patrolman’s morality is exactly the conflict Springsteen explores and exploits – there are inconsistencies with our firm moral beliefs and the world we live in.  Those of us living by codes have tough awakenings when we come close to the meanness in this world.  One man on the record sings “Mister, the day the lottery I win, I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again.”  Who of us haven’t had that thought, dealing with the week in week out of economic turmoil.  That’s the same turmoil that have driven a man from his father in “My Father’s House,” who hears, across a chained door, that his hopes of reconciliation are impossible.


Springsteen’s Nebraska is the cause célèbre of artists trying to speak of The Boss’s greatness – it’s the album that shows his everyman approach isn’t disconnected from the struggle of what that everyman actually experiences.  Which is all just a fancy way of saying something even more obvious – what other album even speaks of economic struggle?  How many of us have experienced concerns about money and been confronted and oppressed by a music collection full of only songs about love?


For the Springsteen layperson, I’ll provide just a little background, though not much, because I think this subject has been to death.  It’s been said of Bruce that when he experiences some success, he goes back to create something a little more rim and “honest” because the more theatrical side of himself begins to feel removed from the ordinary man he is purported to represent.  This album was released between the grand double album The River in 1980 and Born in the USA immediately afterwards in 1984, which made Springsteen a megastar and had 7 top 10 hits.  Nebraska is like a purification of his soul before taking in the fame and fortune of doing songs like “Dancing in the Dark,” but please don’t take that as a judgment of any kind – I love “Dancing in the Dark.”


But I love Nebraska more.  This album is often compared to 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils and Dust as the “pure,” acoustic Bruce speaking for the common people.  These albums are actually pretty distinct from each other for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Nebraska is so superior to both of those records.  Tom Joad speaks to even more desperate Americans – ex-cons and homeless men – and its construction is even more acoustic and forgettable.  The harmonica that runs like a thread through the songs of Nebraska mostly disappears on Tom Joad, and its great songs seem even quieter than “Nebraska.”  I loved Devils and Dust but I almost feel the comparison is a phony one – Devils is defined and invigorated by its glossiest songs like “All The Way Home” and “Long Time Coming” that pop up throughout the record, propelling its acoustic numbers into supporting roles that bracket the album’s true theme – love, even when it comes from soldiers, workers, and dead immigrants, unites us all.  That’s hardly the populist Bruce back to work.


Love doesn’t unite the characters of Nebraska, a morality that’s slipping away and feeling astonishingly remote is what unites them.  Yet Nebraska is, I believe, the great Bruce Springsteen record because it affirms its existence.  In “Reason to Believe,” the magnificent final song, Bruce observes a whole host of beliefs that begin from the delusional (a man standing on the highway over a dead dog “like if he stands there long enough, the dog’d get up and run”), to things we want to believe in but may be just as delusional (a man baptizing his baby).  “Struck me kinda funny,” Springsteen muses, “that at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe.”  We keep going, the desperate and anxious, in the face of madness, of cruelty, of disbelief, and hard times.  Still, Springsteen finds reason to keep going, and finds a world full of beauty and hope.  Nebraska isn’t simply the best Bruce Springsteen record because of its “edginess” and “purity,” it’s everything he hoped his music would accomplish.


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