Looking back on an album of “absurd intimacy”
The album begins with a slow, sensuous harmonica that invites the listener into the song as it introduces a girl in front of her home.
But there’s no screen door slamming. She’s on the front lawn, not the porch. She’s not dancing, she’s twirling a baton. And once she climbs into his car, they’re not pulling out to win – they’re killing everything in their path.
Just as “Thunder Road” sets the tone for Born to Run, “Nebraska” sets the tone for the album bearing its name: dark, shadowy, sparse and grim. Then again, upbeat and joyous isn’t what you’d expect from a song based on the true story of 19-year-old serial killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.
Released September 30, 1982, and famously recorded as demos on a 4-track cassette recorder, the Nebraska album was an unexpected next step in the Bruce Springsteen canon.
One year earlier, The River tour had come to an end, characterized by marathon shows and a level of energy that left audiences awestruck and exhausted. Expectations were that Springsteen’s next release would continue along the high-energy path set by songs like “Sherry Darling,” “Hungry Heart” and “Out in the Street.”
Fans would have to wait until 1984’s Born in the USA album to have those expectations fulfilled. Instead, Nebraska took listeners on a darker journey, one only hinted at in River songs like “Wreck on the Highway” and “Point Blank.”
In reviewing the album when it came out, I wrote in The Island Ear, Long Island’s weekly music newspaper: “Springsteen’s music on Nebraska is as harsh and sobering as the vision of America it presents. The biggest problem with the album, though, is that many Springsteen fans will dismiss it because it isn’t a rollicking E Street party album.”
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City”
I was wrong. It’s a testament to the excellence of Springsteen’s writing (as well as to his fans’ collective loyalty) that most embraced the record – and that it holds up so well 40 years later. Steven Van Zandt knew what he was talking about when he told his friend to release the demos:
“I’m just telling you I think your fans will just love this and I think it’s actually an important piece of work,” Van Zandt told Rolling Stone magazine. “Because it captures this amazingly strange, weirdly cinematic kind of dreamlike mood. I don’t know what it is. All I know is I know greatness when I hear it and this is it, okay? And this deserves to be heard I think people will love it and I think it’s a unique opportunity to actually release something absurdly intimate.”
It certainly doesn’t get much more intimate than crawling into the thoughts of a “Highway Patrolman” who has to come to terms with his no-good troublemaker of a brother and allow him to escape to Canada. Or of “Johnny 99,” whose desperation and hopelessness in the face of unemployment drive him to murder. Or of the singer who clings to the impossible hope of lottery winnings to wash away the shame he feels because his family drives “Used Cars.”
Such intimacy and raw emotional honesty tend to hold up over time, and Springsteen certainly hasn’t ignored the album in the 40 years since its release. A look at all-time Springsteen tour stats on setlist.fm shows that two tracks from Nebraska – “Johnny 99” and “Atlantic City” – crack his Top 40 most-played songs ever (35 and 40, respectively).
When Bruce reunited with the E Street Band in 1999, “Mansion on the Hill” was frequently played (at 66 of the 132 shows). And in 2017, when Springsteen selected a handful of songs to feature in his intimate Broadway show, he chose “My Father’s House” as the representative song about his old man.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Highway Patrolman”
Songs from Nebraska have been embraced by plenty of other artists, too: “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman” were both covered by Johnny Cash, for example, while “Nebraska” was covered by Chrissy Hynde, and “Atlantic City” was covered by Hank Williams III. The latter two tracks, along with 11 additional Springsteen covers, can be heard on Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
If there’s one bright spot on this overwhelmingly noir album, it’s “Open All Night,” a rollicking celebration of the singer’s long journey back home to see his girl. Bruce pulled this one out and retooled it for the Seeger Sessions tour, and if you’ve never heard it, click this link right now for the version from Live in Dublin. Pure get-off-your-ass-and-dance energy.
Finally, after an emotionally exhausting set of songs of murder, execution, criminal behavior, despair and desperation, Bruce sums it up with a whiff of hope marinated in exhaustion: “at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.”
Because really, when you come right down to it, what else CAN you do but believe? That’s as true today as it was 40 years ago – maybe even more so.