Counterbalance No. 123: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’

Bruce Springsteen

Mendelsohn: Today we find ourselves in a familiar position, Klinger. It’s just you, me, and another Bruce Springsteen record. Are you prepared for yet another go around? Gird your loins. This one is going to be fun.

On the record player today is Nebraska, Springsteen’s sparse, mostly acoustic effort from 1982, that finds the bleakness Springsteen had hinted at in Darkness on the Edge of Town now completely engulfing his entire world. I don’t know if there is any other way to put this so I will just say it as unequivocally as I can: I love this record. I love the sparse melody. I love the bleak tales and violence. And I love the fact that it’s just Bruce, his guitar, and a narrative and the power with which he wields his song craft.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel a little conflicted about this seeing as I’ve always been the one that could only muster a grudging respect for an artist I never felt I could connect with, especially when it came to the Springsteen that seemed to trade in mostly soaring melodramas about teen escapism and the danger of the streets. The funny thing is, if I hadn’t spent so much time digging through Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, pulling those records apart and understanding what it was about Springsteen’s music that I didn’t particularly like, I would have never been able to see how different Nebraska was from the rest of his repertoire. So there’s that. It’s now in print. I love Bruce Springsteen. Well, just Nebraska. I’m going to remain ambivalent about the rest of his catalog.

Klinger: Well, this is a red-letter day here at the Counterbalance HQ. I’ve always enjoyed your steadfast ambivalence, and now a part of me is sad to see it go. But it’s no surprise—the last time we talked about Springsteen, I mentioned that Nebraskais the album that it’s always been OK for everyone to like. Regular Springsteen fans can enjoy Nebraskafor its stripped-down storytelling and its intimate feel. It’s almost as if Springsteen is sitting in your rumpus room singing you a few tracks he’s working on. People who don’t typically like Springsteen can dig into its dark ambiance without the saxophone solos and general epicosity that troubles them in his other albums.

I will say this, though: of all the albums from Springsteen’s classic period (referring here to those records from prior to that dark time in our nation’s history when Bruce went crazy and fired the E Street Band), Nebraskamight well be the album I pull out the least.

Mendelsohn: And I can see why. Nebraska doesn’t exactly shout “fun-time listening experience”, with its tales of woe and desperation about serial killers, down and out losers, middle-class angst, and bar room violence. In fact, up until a couple months ago, you couldn’t pay me to listen to this record. Listening to Springsteen in general, let alone when he is strumming earnestly and singing into his tape recorder like a lonely teenage boy locked in his bedroom, gave me fits. It wasn’t until l decided to start getting up in the middle of the night to sit in the dark of my house (don’t ask) that I found the proper head space to appreciate this stark and beautiful record. Oh, and the things I heard, sitting there in the dark listening to Springsteen as he wove his narratives throughout those songs. But by morning my enthusiasm always started to wane. So, for a while, this album was my very own loathly lady—beautiful in the dark of night but a wretched hag in the bright of the sun. Until one day, not too long ago, I found myself humming “My Father’s House”, as I was walking to work. And it dawned on me I could listen to Nebraskaanytime I wanted as long as I let it be the album it wanted to be. It just so happens to be a record by Bruce Springsteen.

I’m curious, though, Klinger. Why is Nebraska your least-loved Springsteen album? Is it the lack of sax?

Klinger: You know what part of it is? Right around the time this record came out, my parents bought me a subscription to Rolling Stone. Not surprisingly, they named Nebraska their Album of the Year. An issue or so later, some shmendrik wrote in saying something to the effect that with his rudimentary guitar skills, mumbly voice, and simplistic approach to melody, he believed that he could very easily write the next Album of the Year. Those words always stayed with me as I thought about digging into Springsteen, so that letter was in my mind a sort of precursor to that study that was published recently, observing that negative Internet comments lead to alterations in readers’ attitudes.

Of course, approaching Nebraska with caution might have been good advice for 14-year-old Klinger. I’m not sure I would have been up to the stark realism of that album. Best off that I eased myself in with the more quintessentially Springsteenian Darkness on the Edge of Town. Now, of course, as I’m listening to Springsteen’s almost novelistic ability to notice the details that make all the difference. The way his mother fidgets with her wedding ring in “Used Cars”. The old man poking the dead dog with a stick in “Reason to Believe”. Pretty much everything about “Highway Patrolman”, especially considering that all the details in that song (Perrineville, Michigan County, “The Night of the Johnstown Flood”) are made up.

Mendelsohn: And that’s fine. That’s just good storytelling — accepted embellishment. It’s those details and Springsteen’s ability to make the mundane moving that really makes the record work. I don’t think any 14-year-old would be interested in the banality of Springsteen’s bleak American landscape. But that brings me to an important point. Nebraska is very much a grown-up record. Where Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town were able to transcend generational barriers with feel-good sax solos and the romance of the streets, Nebraska eschews all of that for a more mature, albeit depressing, outlook. If you don’t understand that “there is just meanness in the world”, and have not come to terms with that undeniable fact, I don’t think you will understand the record, let alone find the beauty within it as Springsteen outlines the challenges we all must face in life.

As for the assertion that any fool with a four-track recorder and a guitar could make this album, I think that’s just an easy way to dismiss this record. Springsteen had tried to record these songs with the E Street Band but came to the realization that they lost all of their power and intimacy behind larger arrangements. It takes a real artist to understand when and where to use space within their songs.

Klinger: That’s true, and I may not have fully appreciated quiet and space when I was a kid. I do remember liking “Atlantic City”, especially when the video was in rotation on MTV. But I never quite got just how perfect that song is until I listened to it as an adult. The way that he tied the personal desperation of the narrator with the larger desperation of the city, which had legalized casino gambling just a few years earlier in an effort to revive its fading seaside grandeur—and that’s never been expressed more eloquently than in that haunting line in the chorus, “Maybe everything that dies someday comes back”. Only someone who has literally nothing left to lose could make a statement like that—one that’s equal parts hopeful and hopeless, and Springsteen captures that beautifully.

But I think that’s a big part of what makes Nebraska so compelling. We’ve talked about how Springsteen has taken the realities that are part and parcel of the American Dream and brought them into clear focus through his songs’ protagonists, but on this album he seems to go one step further by intertwining the personal with the political so seamlessly. Joe Roberts leaves farming to become a state trooper because falling wheat prices made farming unsustainable, for example. That’s very real, and it ties in with the idea that in 1982 Springsteen was chronicling the serious recession that we were in at the time. Somewhere in the process of making his sound so much smaller, Springsteen ended up making his scope that much broader.

Mendelsohn: Ultimately, that’s what pulled me—the realism. The theatrics of typical Springsteen material is nowhere to be found, and I love that. He may have fudged some facts and embellished the story lines, but Nebraska remains a stark and gritty portrait of America that continues to persist because of its universal themes. It’s in those themes and in his hushed tones and snippets of wisdom about the struggle to survive—and the reasons we give ourselves to push on—that this record endures and adds to Springsteen’s songwriting legacy.