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Flint’s one-album-wonders: Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)

13/03/2013

springsteen_nebraska

In the third part of Rambling Fox’s walk through artists who only ever made one interesting album in the writer’s opinion, we move away from the new millennium and go back to the early 80s, when the God of Rock Bombast locked himself in his house and released a group of stripped down, downbeat acoustic ballads.

nebraska_smallBruce Springsteen – American stadium rock personified. The voice of the blue-collar everyday people who were born to run towards the American Dream. A living legend who has been pumping his fist in the air and singing anthems over soaring guitars and saxophones ever since the seventies. Also, an artist who has always sounded incredibly distant and almost superficial to me. I admire him as a musical act, his biography is an excellent read and on all accounts he’s an incredible artist who deserves the critical reappreciation he’s gained during the last decade, but when I hear his music it does nothing to me. He is a charismatic singer with clear songwriting talent, but all that gets lost in the sheer scale of his style which feels like an overblown performance act at the worst of times. I don’t find his music bad, but I can’t connect to it at all.

The only times Springsteen’s music has had an effect on me are the ones where he stopped sounding like Bruce Springsteen. His greatest song is the haunting “Streets of Philadelphia”, whose synths and drum machines are a far cry from anything else The Boss has done. His greatest album on the other hand is 1982’s Nebraska, where he unintentionally removed himself from his sound and trademark guitar bombast. This wasn’t the original plan: Nebraska was intended to be a set of rough demos that Springsteen would work into full-form songs with the E Street Band once it was time to go to the studio. But after the band had gotten together and recorded their parts, no one felt confident about the material: the arrangements were fine but the haunting feel of the original demos that had made them so strong had vanished during the transformation. So, urged by his production team, Springsteen decided to release the original demos instead of the band material. Through one happenstance event he switched his stadium-sized bravado to an incredibly intimate, minimalist approach. All the additional bells, whistles and kitchen sinks were removed, the showmanship was shed away, and what was left was the heartfelt singer/songwriter that had always been at the core, drowned by the rock and roll.

Albums devoted solely to one instrument and voice are some of the hardest ones to pull off. When you strip away everything but the bare minimum from the sound, everything that’s left has to be top of the notch because the spotlight is all on them. It’s a style of music that has produced tiresome legions of mind-numbingly dull and generic music and which we become almost conditioned to dislike once we hear our fifth hundred young hopeful who thinks he’s the next great singer/songwriter. Albums like such need not only exceptional songwriting but a special magic of some sort to help fill the gaps in the music, often in the form of pure charisma from the artist himself. You would also think that someone like Springsteen who has always preached the power of the rock band would have all his weaknesses exposed in a context like this, but the magic of Nebraska comes from how it actually underlines all of Springsteen’s natural strengths. You hear and read all the praise for his voice, lyrics and charisma, but they finally live up to the hype when they’re the only things left around. Nebraska may not contain Springsteen’s flashiest vocal performances or most poetic lyrics, but for once his voice gets to your soul and his trademark storytelling becomes striking and thought-provoking.

Another reason why Nebraska stands out in the Springsteen discography is that it’s the only one of his albums that sounds straight-up bleak. Not everything he has done is roaringly upbeat of course, but Nebraska’s as downbeat and grayscale as its cover image. Most of the time it’s completely down-trodden: if Springsteen’s music has always embodied the idea that it’s always possible to break free from the gutter you lie in (in sound even if not lyrically at times), Nebraska has lost all hope of ever getting out. Death and violence are frequent subject matters in the lyrics, Springsteen’s traditionally roaring voice now croons with a downbeat tone and the mood only ever lets go with the vaguely hopeful “Reason to Believe” right at the end of the album. That the songs are a group of home demos in execution works to their advantage – the unpolished sound contributes to the thick atmosphere and the frequent echo and light fuzz around the edges gives the music character.


Atlantic City

Unfortunately Nebraska isn’t without its weaker moments, as much as I’d love to praise it as a whole. “State Trooper” and “Open All Night” are the album’s two (relatively) high-tempo number and the ones where it becomes clearest that the songs were meant as sketches for a full rock band: this also means that while all the other songs sound complete in their current form, these two sound like they’re missing parts. But even adding additional instruments wouldn’t be enough to save them – “State Trooper” is a monotonous blues rocker and “Open All Night” is a downright terrible rockabilly number. For an album that’s so oozing with atmosphere, they commit the greatest crime by shattering that atmosphere to pieces and breaking the feel of the album. While Nebraska recovers between and after them, the album never feels as grand as it did earlier on.

But when that voice, those words and the gently played guitar work perfectly in unison, you can finally begin to grasp why people praise Springsteen so, as well as why Nebraska has such a positive reputation. The foggy and weary atmosphere is haunting and beautiful: the songs are bleak but not dark, moreso simply tired of things and in need of rest but life keeps beating them down. If Springsteen is the sound of America, this is the melancholy side of the American dream and he sings it with as much passion as he would his usual anthems. And while Nebraska does not carry anything as ridiculously catchy as “Born to Run”, “The Rising”, “Born in the USA” or “Dancing in the Dark”, its melancholy beauty sounds more magical than any of those big choruses – I’ll have something as heartfelt and emotionally gripping as “Atlantic City”, “Highway Patrolman” or “Mansion on the Hill” any day over them.

Springsteen would go on to explore his acoustic side a few more times during his career but they’ve not had the strength of Nebraska. They’ve felt too self-consciously stripped down, like they were analytically designed as acoustic albums from the get go and then produced in a hi-fi studio environment like all the rest of his albums. A part of Nebraska’s strength definitely comes from its incidental nature – because the songs were not designed to be released as acoustic ballads, they managed to capture Springsteen at his most intimate and unplanned, which gives them their achingly personal magic. I don’t think Nebraska is anything Springsteen could ever replicate because of this very nature, which is tragic in its own way as it’s the only time I’ve ever felt The Boss’ renowned power.

P.S. Springsteen has performed some of the full band versions of Nebraska tracks occasionally in his live shows. And while they’re not bad per se, they definitely give the impression that had he gone through with the original plan, this article probably wouldn’t exist because Nebraska would be just another Springsteen album among the others.


Highway Patrolman

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 19/12/2013 07:16

    I agree with your assessment of Nebraska being Springsteen’s strongest/best album, but I think you were soft on him. His music doesn’t resonate because it is bad. It’s ridiculous and superficial and seems phony. As I never understood the appeal growing up, I was ready to write him off entirely until I found and (really) listened to Nebraska. I always pull this album out in the winter and I periodically search for tracks from that era with that feel. A few years ago I found a couple and “fixed” what I saw as flaws in the album. The first flaw is more of a compliment: The album is too short. I want more. I want the mood to carry and my apartment is never quite as lonely as when that record finishes and all that’s left is the sound of traffic. The second flaw is along the lines of what you pointed out: “Open All Night is a downright terrible rockabilly number.” Pulling that song off would make it shorter and since I want the length increased I found two songs from the Nebraska sessions. I’d like it to be longer than one more song, but the right tune is better than four of the wrong ones. My version now looks like this:
    1. Nebraska
    2. Atlantic City
    3. Mansion On The Hill
    4. Child Bride
    5. Johnny 99
    6. Highway Patrolman
    7. State Trooper
    8. Used Cars
    9. The Losin’ Kind
    10. My Father’s House
    11. Reason To Believe

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