Monday, April 23, 2012
I've threatened/promised this Springsteen piece for an eon, and now feels like the time to deliver. To be honest, it's not like I'm going to add much of anything to the critical debate regarding Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. All which needs to be said has been said. Frankly, so far as I see it, the only reason I could see why anyone who reads this blog on a regular occasion (which means the "you" in question vaguely inhabits the same musical stratosphere as myself) wouldn't like this album is because of blind prejudice: that is, you fucking hate Bruce Springsteen. That's fine, you're welcome to your opinion, but that still doesn't answer the question as to why Nebraska, Springsteen's very atypical solo outing from 1982, recorded on cassette tape with just himself and a handful of accompanying instruments (harmonica, mandolin, electric/acoustic guitars, etc.), isn't to your liking. Maybe you don't like "folk music" or singer-songwriters of the soul-bearing variety. Maybe your have your head up your arse. Maybe you think that The Boss a shamelessly mersh bar-band hack who couldn't possibly come up with any musical goods in his or your lifetime. The reasons could be many and varied.
When I was 12 and buying Top 40 7" singles on a weekly basis, I bought myself a copy of Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark". I liked the song OK, though I wasn't hot on Springsteen per se. The denim/blue-collar/Born In The USA angle didn't sit well w/ an Anglophile such as myself, because in my pubescent state I associated just about all American music w/ boring AOR corporate rock a la Eagles/REO Speedwagon/etc., simply by association of its origin (this wasn't because I was a bad-assed punk rocker; I was a candy-assed new romantic/wave fan. It was only after being exposed to the Dead Kennedys/Cramps when I was 13 that I came to appreciate a world of American music previously unknown). From memory, I played the single a handful of times, but it went w/ The Big Cull of 1986, when I sold all my Top 40 7"s in a quest to be the most hardcore idiot the world had ever known, and I figured my one purchase of a Springsteen single to be a strange detour on my quest for righteousness. It's not that I disliked The Boss: frankly, the guy wasn't even on the map. Skip 18 years to 2002, and then came my next Boss purchase: the one we speak of now. It was a few dollars at the Camberwell Market, I'd read the stories, I took the plunge.
Now all of this was a frankly boring and roundabout way of explaining how I came to find myself as a 30-year-old in what I considered to be the strange position of purchasing myself a Bruce Springsteen LP. I did it again soon thereafter. And again. And yet again: Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River and Born To Run. All great albums, I will state with a certain caveat: I consider Bruce to be an excellent songwriter and a great storyteller - he can even pen an awesome rock riff (see "Candy's Room" on Darkness...) - but his recorded output is often marred by production and arrangements which are either way too mersh, bar-band, cheesy, sluggishly unrock or a combination thereof (there is, however, one excellent track from the peak of his '80s mersh period, right here). This is why Nebraska, for myself and many others (weird to think that Bruce didn't learn from this but instead went onto a lifetime of mostly schlock production. I guess record sales and not critical praise are what pay the rent) is the one Springsteen album to get. There's no ifs or buts: it has the songs - the best collection of songs he ever wrote - and it has the sympathetic, lo-fi and totally unadorned production which complement the feel of the songs.
The album itself was actually originally recorded as merely demos for an upcoming album. Tracks with the E Street Band were recorded soon afterwards, but Springsteen thought the stark and stripped-back demo recordings sounded much better, and so they were released as an official LP by the corporate slavedogs at Columbia Records. Some full-band recordings have been bootlegged and released over the years, and I'd bet you a lollipop you could Google 'em and find them in a heartbeat (I've never bothered, out of a total lack of curiosity). I've posted my favourite song from the album below - again, "Atlantic City" seems to be everyone's favourite track - although there are several others which make the grade: the title number, of course; the stripped-back, one-man-band Chuck Berry-style "Johnny 99"; the ghostly "State Trooper", a song Springsteen has always said was influenced by Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop" (Bruce has covered Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" both in concert and on disc: Blast First released a very ltd. 10" a couple of years back w/ his rendition [it's good, too]); and the vaguely uplifting closer, "Reason To Believe". Like I said, Springsteen is an excellent storyteller, and Nebraska as a whole presents a range of characters who give the listener a picture of their lives, most of them grim. So far as narrative, songwriting and the execution of its theme, it's up there with Dylan's Blood On The Tracks and Neil Young's On The Beach as a compositional whole.
Bruce Springsteen has sold a lot of records in his life, and that's certainly no reason to ignore this excellent album. A few years ago I praised Nirvana's Nevermind on this very blog and challenged anyone to come up w/ a convincing argument as to why it wasn't a great album. Ditto for Nebraska. Your previous efforts were pathetic, so I can only conclude that I was correct. Please send all ill-informed comments to the box below.