After ten years of forging his own brand of fiery, expansive rock & roll, Bruce Springsteen has decided that some stories are best told by one man, one guitar. Flying in the face of a sagging record industry with an intensely personal project that could easily alienate radio, rock’s gutsiest mainstream performer has dramatically reclaimed his right to make the records he wants to make, and damn the consequences. This is the bravest of Springsteen’s six records; it’s also his most startling, direct and chilling. And if it’s a risky move commercially, Nebraska is also a tactical masterstroke, an inspired way out of the high-stakes rock & roll game that requires each new record to be bigger and grander than the last.
Until now, it looked as if 1973’s dizzying The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle would be the last Springsteen album to surprise people. Ensuing records simply refined, expanded and deepened his artistry. But Nebraska comes as a shock, a violent, acid-etched portrait of a wounded America that fuels its machinery by consuming its people’s dreams. It is a portrait painted with old tools: a few acoustic guitars, a four-track cassette deck, a vocabulary derived from the plain-spoken folk music of Woody Guthrie and the dark hillbilly laments of Hank Williams. The style is steadfastly, defiantly out-of-date, the singing flat and honest, the music stark, deliberate and unadorned.
Nebraska is an acoustic triumph, a basic folk album on which Springsteen has stripped his art down to the core. It’s as harrowing as Darkness on the Edge of Town, but more measured. Every small touch speaks volumes: the delicacy of the acoustic guitars, the blurred sting of the electric guitars, the spare, grim images. He’s now telling simple stories in the language of a deferential common man, peppering his sentences with “sir’s.” “My name is Joe Roberts,” he sings. “I work for the state.”
As The River closed, Springsteen found himself haunted by a highway death. On Nebraska, violent death is his starting point. The title track is an audacious, scary beginning. Singing in a voice borrowed from Guthrie and early Bob Dylan, he takes the part of mass murderer Charlie Starkweather to quietly sing, “I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done/At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.” The music is gentle and soothing, but this is no romanticized outlaw tale à la Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” The casual coldbloodedness, the singer’s willingness to undertake the role and the music’s pastoral calm make Starkweather all the more horrific.
Springsteen follows with another tale of real-life murder, this one involving mob wars in Atlantic City. With “Nebraska” and “Atlantic City,” his landscape has taken on new, broader boundaries, and when he begins “Mansion on the Hill” with a reference to “the edge of town,” it’s clear that his usual New Jersey turf has opened its borders to include Nebraska and Wyoming and forty-seven other states. Crowds on the final leg of his last tour saw hints that Springsteen was heading toward this territory when he talked of Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s history of the United States and Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: a Life, and when he sang the songs of Guthrie, John Fogerty and Elvis Presley, all uniquely American stories.
The keynote lines on Nebraska — “Deliver me from nowhere” and “I got debts that no honest man can pay” — each surface in two songs. The former ends both “State Trooper” and “Open All Night,” while the latter turns up in “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99.” The album’s honest men — and they outnumber its criminals, though side one’s string of bloodletters suggests otherwise — are all paying debts and looking for deliverance that never comes. The compassion with which Springsteen sings every line can’t hide the fact that there’s no peace to be found in the darkness, no cleansing river running through town.
As on The River, the most outwardly optimistic songs on the new album are sung by a man who knows full well that his dreams of easy deliverance are empty. In “Used Cars,” the singer watches his father buy another clunker and makes a vow as heartfelt as it is heartbreakingly hollow: “Mister, the day the lottery I win/I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again.” And the LP’s one seeming refuge turns out to be illusion: in “My Father’s House,” a devastating capper to Springsteen’s cycle of “father” songs, the house is a sanctuary only in the singer’s dreams. When he awakens, he finds that his father is gone, that the house sits at the end of a highway “where our sins lie unatoned.” By this point, the convicted murderer of “Johnny 99” is one of the few characters who’s seemingly figured out how to retain his dignity. He asks to be executed.
If this record is as deep and unsettling as anything Springsteen has recorded, it is also his narrowest and most single-minded work. He is not extending or advancing his own style so much as he is temporarily adopting a style codified by others. But in that decision are multiple strengths: Springsteen’s clear, sharp focus, his insistence on painting small details so clearly and his determination to make a folk album firmly in the tradition. “My Father’s House” may be the only cut on side two that can stand up to the string of songs that open the record, but inconsistency is perhaps inevitable after that astonishing initial stretch: the title track; “Altantic City”; and “Highway Patrolman,” an indelible tale of the ties that bind and the toll familial love exacts, with one of Springsteen’s most delicious, delirious reveries — “Me and Frankie laughin’ and drinkin’/Nothing feels better than blood on blood/Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria/As the band played ‘Night of the Johnstown Flood.'”
By the end of the record, paradoxically, the choking dust that hangs over Springsteen’s landscape makes its occasional rays of sunlight shine brighter. In “Atlantic City,” for example, a rueful chorus makes the song sound nearly as triumphant as “Promised Land”: “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies some day comes back/Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”
Finally, it comes down to that: an old dress and a meeting across from the casino is sometimes all it takes. “Reason to Believe” adds the final brush strokes, by turns blackly humorous and haunting. One man stands alongside a highway, poking a dead dog as if to revive it; another heads down to the river to wed. The bride never shows, the groom stands waiting, the river flows on, and people, Bruce sings with faintly befuddled respect, still find their reasons to believe. Naive, simple and telling, it is the caption beneath Bruce Springsteen’s abrasive, clouded and ultimately glorious portrait of America.