Sunday, 22 January 2012

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - NEBRASKA


ARTIST: Bruce Springsteen
ALBUM: Nebraska
RELEASED: September 1982

Nebraska/Atlantic City/Mansion on the Hill/Johnny 99/Highway Patrolman/
State Trooper/Used Cars/Open All Night/My Father's House/Reason to Believe

Everything dies baby that's a fact,
But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty,
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

Once upon a time I knew (via a music discussion forum) a guy called Will. Biggest music geek I've ever crossed paths with. Think Rob from High-Fidelity. Punk, metal, indie, goth, you name it, he probably had the Japanese import on coloured vinyl. He made me feel positively normal in my obsession. More importantly, when I moved to a new town and knew nobody who was going to gigs and checking out new bands, it was people like Will and websites like those we frequented that gave me an outlet to discuss my love of music and the big issues like whether the third Skid Row album was really any good or not. Knowing people like him is part of why I'm writing a blog like this.

Only thing is, he didn't really like Bruce Springsteen, at least, not really. A failing in my mind, but it takes all kinds I guess. Will's reasoning was that he couldn't connect with Springsteen's story-telling approach to songwriting. It didn't ring true to him and he much preferred artists who took a more 'personal' approach to their craft. Fair enough (I guess), except that he loved Nebraska.

That's right. Nebraska. An album rich with characters like Johnny 99 and the chicken-man. An album of acoustic demos that is as close to a collection of short-stories as it is a collection of songs. On the face of it, that's a fairly contradictory position to hold for a guy who put a fair amount of thought into the music he liked.

Atlantic City
(one of the best songs ever, by anyone)

However, I've always felt that that the apparent contradictions in people's tastes can teach us a lot about both them and the artists in we spend our time contemplating. And since this isn't a blog about people I've met through the internet, let's think about Nebraska and its place in the Springsteen catalogue...

It's not surprising that someone who is otherwise not a huge Springsteen fan might still love Nebraska. Musically, its sparse acoustic approach – no keyboards, no drums, no electric guitar - is the antithesis of the E-Street Band wall of sound which dominated Springsteen's prior albums. Only Atlantic City and Johnny 99 have any sort of propulsion to them. The rest are folkier tunes - haunting, lyrically dense and emotionally intense.  It contains some fantastic songs, but to claim, as some do, that it is Springsteen's best? I'm unconvinced. Listening to Springsteen to enjoy slow, dark, maudlin songs is a little like reading Playboy for the articles. Sure, they're actually pretty good, but if they were really what I wanted I'd have just bought an issue of Time Magazine (or perhaps a Leonard Cohen album).

Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir,
And snaps my poor neck back.
You make sure my pretty baby,
Is sittin right there on my lap.

Having said that, I can understand why Will might have been able to enjoy the story-telling on Nebraska more than he enjoyed the not entirely dissimilar tales that populate Springsteen's E-Street Band albums. The dark, claustrophobic feel of the sparse arrangements and Springsteen's restrained vocal approach complement the lyrics superbly, making the fictions presented all the more believable, the stories seemingly more personal as the gap between singer and listener is lessened by the intimacy of the recordings. Would the chorus to Atlantic City be as heartbreaking with Little Steven's wailing guitar and a Clarence Clemons sax solo? Would a rolling drum-fill make us think any more deeply about the plight of the titular character in Johnny 99? Probably not.

Johnny 99
(also look up the great versions by Johnny Cash and Los Lobos)

As effective as it may be though, the acoustic approach taken on Nebraska means that a number of the characteristics that, to my mind, make Springsteen great in the first place are missing. In a world of po-faced wannaDylans, Springsteen was always the singer-songwriter who wasn't afraid to rock out. Or the rocker that wasn't afraid to densely pack his lyrics. An acoustic album shifts him firmly into the already crowded singer-songwriter camp. As a result, Nebraska is an album a number of other artists might have made (albeit probably not as well). Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, on the other hand, are albums no other artist could have made.

An extension of this is the fact that in presenting such serious songs in such a serious fashion, Springsteen is unable to utilise one of his greatest tricks. You see, it's not like much of his catalogue isn't fairly bleak, but Springsteen has an unequalled ability to present dark lyrical themes in poppy or anthemic contexts as if it is the most logical thing in the world. It's no wonder people so regularly misinterpret Born in the USA when they hear that fist-pumping chorus. And Hungry Heart? That's got to be the jauntiest song ever written about a man walking out on his family. This is one of Springsteen's greatest gifts as a songwriter and arranger. Another of those things that separates him from the pack, and another thing you won't find on Nebraska.

Radio's jammed up with gospel stations,
Lost souls callin' long distance salvation.
Hey Mr DJ woncha hear my last prayer,
Hey ho rock 'n roll deliver me from nowhere.

Ultimately, bar a couple of the strongest tunes, when I hear Nebraska I still feel like a lot of fans must have at the time: This is nice and all, but it's not really the full package. I'm glad it was released in its stripped back acoustic form. As an exception to the rule, it strengthens the Springsteen catalogue. You can play it at times where three guitars, two keyboards and a saxophone don't suit your mood. As a one-off therefore, it's a very worthwhile album. But it feels like a side-project.

In my experience, people who rank Nebraska as Springsteen's best are often people who were never as taken by his other work. In thinking about it, I understand where they are coming from, and where Will was coming from. The things that light my fire when it comes to Springsteen obviously didn't appeal to him in the same way, and an opportunity to hear the songwriter devoid of his rock band trappings opened him up to an artist he was otherwise not so enamored with. It's an interesting example of how one atypical album in a catalogue can serve to illuminate the artist's catalogue as a whole. And, despite my misgivings, it really is a great album. In fact to present my own contradictory opinion, it is better than its follow-up Born in the USA, the full band mega-hit packed with all the things I've just told you define Springsteen.

I guess what I'm really trying to say with all of this is, we miss you Will.

Reason to Believe
-Aimee Mann & Michael Penn


Atlantic City
-The Hold Steady
(one of my favorite of the current crop of obviously Springsteen inspired acts, with a cover that
reworks the original quite significantly, as covers of such bare-bones songs often do)

Next edition: Miles runs the voodoo down.

5 comments:

  1. well written. will have to give it a listen.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Replies
    1. D+ is still a pass, right?
      Why so?

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  3. You elided a bit over the historical context. I mean in-between a solid pop hit (The River) and one of the biggest selling albums of all time (BITUSA)he put out this bleak acoustic album. To put out such a blunt, honest and ragged work in a time of synthesizers, hairspray and false optimism remains one of Springsteen's boldest actions.
    P.S. I enjoyed the write-up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks... I thought about throwing in some more about the context, but it didn't fit in so easily with the angle I was taking, and I'm trying to stop all of these things becoming 1,500+ words! I agree though, to release an album like that at that point in music and his career was certainly a brave move.

      Delete