Recorded at his New Jersey home on a four-track machine, Bruce Springsteen didn’t set out to make Nebraska. Instead, he was creating demos for the next E-Street band album, a record his label hoped would continue the critical and commercial successes that his previous three, Born To Run, Darkness at the Edge of Town, and The River, had garnered. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when label execs first heard Nebraska. Far and away his darkest work, Springsteen created an edgy masterpiece that communicated in stark, clear terms the restless, beaten heart of the American Dream. From the desperation of “State Trooper” to the sociopathic violence of the title cut, this was not your typical night on Bruce’s Jersey boardwalk. For this reason, it remains (almost 20 years after its release) many people’s favorite Springsteen album. It is certainly his most compelling.
The idea of doing a tribute to an album isn’t new. Bloodshot recently toasted the Knitters’ sole release in this fashion. While that project didn’t exactly work, due in some part to the limited appeal of the material, Badlands succeeds because the original work was so strong. The people in these songs live. They walk our streets, put gas in our car, and cry alone at night. The artists that allow the voices of the characters to dominant the song, instead of overshadowing with their own persona, come out the best. Deana Carter on “State Trooper” and Dar Williams with “Highway Patrolman” realize that these songs don’t need, and in fact actually repel, ornamentation. Son Volt’s take on “Open All Night” succeeds because Volt’s Jay Farrar is one of rock’s weariest sounding vocalists, and his delivery is perfect for the tune.
The work also features songs recorded during the Nebraska time frame. “I’m On Fire”, performed by Johnny Cash, makes you understand perhaps for the first time how this song ties into the underlying terror that haunts Nebraska. In Cash’s skilled hands, the song no longer functions as a heartfelt confession of love. Now it appears as the statement of a man who can no longer control his passion. It is a warning.
This tribute has only a few spots that don’t work. Chrissie Hynde and Adam Seymour’s version of the title cut is executed perfectly, and Hynde sounds commandingly ethereal as ever. Only problem is, the song is about the pair of killers—Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate—profiled in the film Badlands, and it’s Starkweather’s vision the song depicts, so having a woman sing it is a bit jarring. Far worse is Hank III’s take on “Atlantic City”. The ultimate cover of this song already exists, performed by the post-Robbie Robertson version of the Band on 1993’s Jericho. When Levon Helm sings a song, it stays sung. The offspring of Hank Williams might be a great honky-tonker, but “Atlantic City” ain’t no barroom boogie, and this uptempo boot scooter don’t work.
Nebraska remains a landmark piece of work, and in its depths, Springsteen reached a height of invocation that he rarely summoned again. After the release of this album came Born in the USA, the work that took him from critics’ darling to pop superstar. He was never the same again, nor was his relationship to his music. For those of us who lost interest in him once he began appearing on MTV and playing football stadiums, Nebraska remains our favorite, our quiet place amid the emotional torrent of modern life. Dark, scared, hoping, and alone, the album connects to some people like few other works. For the majority of the 13 cuts found here, these artists share that.