A look back: Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen

The album sleeve for, American rock’n’roll superstar, Bruce Springsteen’s 6th studio album ‘Nebraska’ perfectly encapsulates the solemn tone of this mature work. A bleak, sparse road leading to seemingly nowhere sets the scene for depressing tales about murderers, criminals and poverty-stricken families in a post-industrial blue-collar America. The simplicity of the artwork reflects the skeletal instrumentation and fragile vocals that make up this remarkable album.

When all is said and done, ‘Nebraska’ is a respectable, mature and often hard-to-sallow entry into Springsteen’s anthology.

Audiences and critics alike were filled with a certain degree of trepidation upon the albums release: could the young rock’n’roller fill an entire 40 minutes? An emotionally and politically intense album on his own without the backing of The E Street Band? While some  argued that he lacks the imagination and linguistic flare of acoustic artists like Bob Dylan or Nick Drake, I personally feel that this album is proof of his honest and captivating song-writing abilities.  He channels his appreciation of Americana music, ‘The Boss’ manages to illuminate the hard lives of the deprived working class.

‘Mansion on The Hill’, inspired by a Hank Williams song, expresses Springsteen’s indictment of the American dream. He sings about the wondering but ultimately unachievable goal of the poor: to break out of their confined position. The glamorous mansion is distanced above the “factories and the fields” but is blocked by the ominous “steel gates”. The shinning lights of the mansion are somewhat reminiscent of the unattainable green light that F. Scott Fitzgerald writes about in ‘The Great Gatsby’. A personal highlight on this album for me is ‘Atlantic City’. Here Springsteen pulls back the curtains of a love-lost, out of work couple. The lead character in this tale is tired of his bad luck and his poverty. The chorus foreshadows his decaying morality and inevitable decline into organised crime when Springsteen sings “everything dies, baby that’s a fact”. This song expresses a greater understanding of why people turn to crime and deviant behaviours and place the audiences’ sympathies in a complex position.

‘The Boss’ manages to illuminate the hard lives of the deprived working class.

The audacious title track ‘Nebraska’ is sung from the point-of-view of spree killer Charles Starkweather. Along with his girlfriend, Starkweather murdered 11 innocent teenagers in 1958. The psychopathic and uncomfortable lyrics, sung flatly, express Starkweather’s lack of emotion and remorse for his actions. The harrowing song ends in execution: certainly, juxtaposed to Springsteen’s earlier, coming of age, teenage rock’n’roll tunes. Throughout the canon of Springsteen’s work, his strained relationship with his father has been a reoccurring theme. The candid ‘My Father’s House’ describes the insistent regrets of the past and the “unatoned” patrilineal issues that haunt the troubled singer-songwriter.  The delicately plucked guitar and soft harmonica heighten the fragility of the lyrics.  Juxtaposed to the prior tracks, the album ends with an optimistic, life affirming song titled ‘Reason to Believe’. Springsteen casts a ray of hope over the album, singing about the determination of hardworking people and their ability to face-up to the harsh realities of life.

When all is said and done, ‘Nebraska’ is a respectable, mature and often hard-to-sallow entry into Springsteen’s anthology.  This album is proof that, rather than being a cheesy American rock star, the Boss is actually a credible song-writer capable of making honest and unique songs that are both artistic and commercially successful.

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