Monday, October 13, 2008

45 Greatest Albums: Bruce Springsteen - 'Nebraska'

I don't like the E Street Band. There. I said it and I don't care who knows it.

OK, fine, 'Born In The U.S.A.' is a perfect album but I think 'Born To Run' is overrated, 'The River' sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of one, and 'The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle' is just embarrassing. At their worst they remind me of a coked out middle manager over-dancing to Journey in white jeans.

Most bands are BANDS. You can't separate one of the members from the rest. This is why the E-Streeters are ultimately session players and not members of a band. I don't care how many photos they put on the cover of Bruce leaning on Clarence or Little Stevie or Max. It is Bruce and whoever he brings along for the ride.


The E-Street Band did their best to uphold this mandate but who could live up to an all-encompassing quest for immortality? The true anthem occurs not with forethought, but with humility. Listen to 'Born To Run' and try to find a humble moment. You can't do it.

I also find it ironic that 'Nebraska' is considered Springsteen's first solo album. In my opinion his albums were all solo records, this one merely was honest enough to admit that he didn't need all those other guys, they were just part of his show.

Admittedly to this point this has not been a review of 'Nebraska' but a referendum on The E Street Band. While this might seem unnecessary it is vital in understanding just what makes this album so great and such a departure. Bruce recorded the songs you hear on 'Nebraska' as templates for the band to build from. They took these home demos and expanded on them in typical E-Street fashion.

Bruce then decided it was time to let the dream die. He scrapped the full band recordings and released 'Nebraska' as he'd recorded it...alone.

'Nebraska' begins with 'Nebraska'. As Bruce brings us along on a murder spree that spans the Badlands he immediately announces that this isn't going to be your father's Bruce Springsteen record. There is no glory, just a polite sociopath who is not sorry for his crimes, but glad to have at least 'had us some fun'. America is not the breeding ground for dreams but merely monsters who kill them.

'Atlantic City' brings us back East and into the shoes of a man who is about to commit murder for money. He's in a jam and can't see any other way out. He consoles himself by saying, 'Maybe everything that dies one day comes back' but it is small consolation indeed. Juxtaposing these two murderous narratives, Bruce dares us to find sympathy for either devil. Sure the down-on-his-luck would-be gun-for-hire of 'Atlantic City' is a pawn in some bosses game, sure his victims won't be quite so innocent as the drifter's kill in 'Nebraska', but victims they will be.

'Mansion On The Hill' is simple is as simple does. Poor man looks at rich man's house.

Next up on the docket is 'Johnny 99' in which a man is sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing a night clerk. The line 'I got debts no honest many can pay' reoccurs here and the economic thrust of the album becomes clearer. Is a man's guilt lessened by his circumstances? The men accused seem to think so but the horror of these tales doesn't allow us that kind of certainty.

Until this moment, the album is stark, finely carved, emotionally resonant, and haunting. It is about to rocket into tragedy and genius.

'Highway Patrolman' packs so much action into its 5 minutes and 38 seconds that Sean Penn made a movie out of it. It tells the story of two brothers who grow up on a farm. One goes off to fight in Vietnam, the other stays behind to work the land. They may or may not be in love with the same girl who marries the one who took over the farm. The farm goes under and the farmer becomes a cop to provide for his family. The Vietnam Vet comes back and can't seem to stay out of trouble, as much as his cop brother looks out for him. Finally he gets into a scrape that turns fatal and a car chase ensues. The Patrolman allows his brother to escape across the Canadian border. How Springsteen manages to pull this all off in rhyming couplets is astonishing. The human cost of crime and its collateral victims is brutally apparent.

'State Trooper' flips the coin to view law enforcement from the point of view of a criminal driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. He says, 'I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done' but still he prays that the State Trooper won't pull him over. After the first 5 songs, we share that prayer because the desperate men that people this world use murder as a means of escape.

'Used Cars' returns to the mind of the poor, as a young boy dreams of being able to afford a new car some day. The violence of the other songs persists, however, and that very dream of wealth seems like a surefire path to destruction.

'Open All Night' might have been an outtake from 'Born To Run', it's all chrome and wheels and late night driving and nowhere and no-how. But again, the context has changed so drastically that even these declarations of love and fidelity seem as if they'd been wrought with weapons, bathed in blood, cured in filth.

'My Father's House' drops an emotional A-bomb into the proceedings. A man dreams of his father's house. He wakes determined that their relationship will be repaired, that they won't hurt each other anymore, that they will love as father and son. He rushes to his car, drives to his father's house, and finds that his father doesn't live there anymore. The primal relationship is forever scarred.

'Reason To Believe' seems innocuous enough, a litany of woes that end with Bruce saying, 'Still at the end of every hard earned day/People find some reason to believe.' Upon closer inspection, this is hardly the uplifting gospel moment it appears to be on the surface. In the first stanza the narrator is laughing at a man who is prodding a dead dog with a stick. In the second, a scorned lover waits every day for the man who will never come back to her. In the third, he compares a baby being baptized to the death of an old man. In the fourth, he witnesses a marriage but later sees the groom waiting for the woman who has spurned him. The singer of these songs doesn't sympathize. There is a glint of amusement in his jaded eye, the eye of a man who laughs at the weak, manipulates the uncertain, kills the inconvenient.

This is not the sound of a man who is in a good time rock and roll band. This is the sound of a man who has decided that his band is for shit, his fans don't get the message, his image has preceded him like some sort of bullshit carnival barker, and the only connection he is able to muster is with drifters who kill for pleasure, money, or panic.

The album isn't called 'Reason To Believe'. It's called 'Nebraska'. The almost deserted setting that housed a man who thought it would be 'fun' to steal a car, drive off into the sunset, and kill everything in his path.

The scary thing is? He was born to run.


Amadeus Winston said...

You put me between a rock and a hard place. While I agree with your assessment of Nebraska, to be slamming the E Street like that, well, I think you risk purgatory in New Jersey for that one!

Just wondering if you have seen them perform live? I suspect that if you have, your opinion of them would change from ‘session players’ to something a little broader. Part of the Springsteen experience, at least for many, is the live shows and the gathered spirit of the band. I grant you, it isn’t something that is captured well on vinyl. Born In The U.S.A. might be the album that comes closest to the rocking roadhouse nature of the band. There was a documentary about the making of Born To Run, where they acknowledged that with that album they were still trying to learn how to make albums and take what they do on stage and press it down onto a record. Don’t think they have ever succeeded though.

I think with Nebraska, Springsteen the songwriter is really coming out of his shell. The songs on the album prior, Darkness On The Edge of Town, could be called equally as bleak. But the bigness of the band does overshadow the message of the band. Think he wanted that sound whittled down to let the songs speak for themselves.

Great posts --- I’ll be checking in.
Thank you

Brendan O'Malley said...

Great to hear your thoughts! One of the items on my list of things to do before I die is to see a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert. I have no doubt that as a performance unit they are unbelievable. But that doesn't really alter my main thoughts, which have more to do with the VIBE of a band. The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who...these are BANDS. I think that had Bruce come across a different crew he might have had a very different career as the lead singer in a band instead of the leader of what is essentially an orchestra.

Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!