Bruce Springsteen – Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “Nebraska” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, December 2nd, 2023  

Bruce Springsteen – Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “Nebraska”

The Album First Came Out on September 30, 1982

Sep 30, 2022 By Austin Saalman
Bookmark and Share

In the aftermath of 1980’s maximalist double LP The River, Bruce Springsteen, still another two years out from his official mainstream breakthrough, headed in the opposite sonic direction on 1982’s bleak Nebraska. Departing from the rich, often operatic intensity of his ’70s output, Springsteen recorded a set of 10 stark character sketches on a four-track recorder in late 1981 and early-’82, which he intended to flesh out with the E Street Band. His ultimate decision to release the recordings as they were, however, proved itself a fine judgment call, allowing the artist to take his listeners on a bare, largely acoustic journey across America’s rusting heartland as its working class continued to decline into a deeper state of despair. The album displayed a new dimension to Springsteen as a musician and narrative lyricist, continuing the New Jersey native’s streak of critical acclaim. Nebraska, though often overlooked in favor of more bombastic, era-defining classics such as Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A., is perhaps Springsteen’s most intimate effort. Compared to its predecessors, Nebraska is a more appropriate soundtrack to the industrial and economic alienation of middle America, which would continue throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Lacking judgment and pretension, the album paints a portrait of innocence lost, revealing to the listener a place of strife and decay, into which no light may enter.

Nebraska’s landscape is bare and plagued by sporadic bursts of violence, no better embodied than on its chilling title track, on which Springsteen revisits the bloody saga of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, two teenage lovers who murdered 11—or 10, according to Springsteen’s account—people across Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s. With inspiration borrowed from director Terrence Malick’s 1973-released debut Badlands—a cinematic reimagining of the killings and still among the greatest films ever made—Springsteen weaves a portrait of youthful nihilism and motiveless carnage. He recounts in his signature rasp the events of the spree which ended in the couple’s arrest and Starkweather’s subsequent execution at age 20, as the track’s condemned narrator coldly concludes, “They wanted to know why I did what I did/Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” This statement essentially sums the album up, revealing the ultimate indifference and lack of meaning at the core of human cruelty, as well as within the impoverished soul of modern America.

In contrast, the doomed lovers of “Atlantic City” find themselves victims of circumstance, as the down on his luck protagonist, burdened by “debts that no honest man can pay,” is enticed into the infernal underworld of organized crime in an attempt to provide himself and his girlfriend with some semblance of hope, contemplating, “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” This is one of Springsteen’s greatest songs and perhaps Nebraska’s best-known cut: an emotionally charged underdog ballad that poses relevant questions regarding the country’s socioeconomic shortcomings and the states of desperation they create. “Down here, it’s just winners and losers,” Springsteen tellingly observes, “and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” This sentiment is echoed in the wistfulness of album standout “Mansion on the Hill,” as its young narrator and his blue-collar family spend a lifetime admiring the hilltop estate of their town’s wealthiest residents. The titular mansion is, of course, emblematic of an elusive American Dream which, despite being so frequently promised by representatives, seems to remain just out of reach for many. The melancholy gentility of “Mansion on the Hill” distinguishes it from the album’s predominant sense of gritty desolation, Springsteen trading the haggard disillusionment of such tracks as “Used Cars” and “Open All Night” for a gentle desire for something greater. It is here that Nebraska’s heart and soul truly reside, in its refusal to accept the permanence of its struggle—a subtle, if naive, pining for beauty.

On the rockabilly-inflected “Johnny 99,” the titular Mahwah, New Jersey native loses his job with the closure of the town’s Ford Motor Company plant and spirals into an outburst of brutality, only to be apprehended after shooting a night clerk, placed on trial, and sentenced to 99 years in prison. The track explores the correlation between the wide scale loss of American jobs to automation and outsourcing in the 1970s and ’80s and the resultant national uptick in violent crime, with Johnny 99 appealing to the courtroom: “Now I ain’t saying that makes me an innocent man/But it was more’n all this that put that gun in my hand.” Elsewhere, the aching “Highway Patrolman” and eerie “State Trooper” both offer chilling narratives, with the former taking place in Prudenville, Michigan, and told from the perspective of a conflicted lawman whose troubled brother Frankie murders a man and attempts to flee to Canada. The latter narrative, in contrast, is offered from the viewpoint of an anxious motorist, guilty of crimes unspecified, attempting not to get pulled over on the New Jersey turnpike, for fear that he will have to murder the state trooper unfortunate enough to stop him. “Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife,” the driver, speculated by some to be a fugitive serial killer, supposes. “The only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life.” These three tracks demonstrate Springsteen’s deep connection to his characters, each empathetically portrayed with the striking humanity of desperate men on the verge.

On the autobiographical “My Father’s House,” Springsteen explores his strained relationship with his father, a recurring theme in his lyrics. In a dream, he is a child once more, attempting to find his way through the wilderness, eventually running to his father’s arms. Upon awakening, Springsteen pays a visit to the house from his dream, only to be told by the current resident that no one by his father’s name lives there anymore. Closing track “Reason to Believe” concludes the album on a downbeat note: A man stands over a dead dog lying in a ditch while a woman reflects upon love lost, a baby is baptized in a river as an old man dies in a nearby “whitewashed shotgun shack,” and a groom stands alone at the altar, though each seems to maintain some quiet faith in destiny’s machinery, Springsteen stating, “At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” There is, however, a hint of doubt in his voice as he sings, as though the dog will not be resurrected, the woman’s heart will never mend, the baby has merely emerged from the nothingness to which the old man has returned, and the groom will be left waiting. Such is the nature of Nebraska, that shadowland between hope and hopelessness, the true face of America behind the oft-romanticized Americana banner.

Despite its minimalistic nature, Nebraska remains among The Boss’ most significant contributions to the national narrative, his hard truths of the modern working class’s struggle to maintain itself frankly spoken with a hardscrabble eloquence. Here, we find Springsteen at a turning point, soon to transition from scrappy street poet to chart-topping arena rock megastar, with Nebraska representing a familiar return to his roots just before his world changed entirely. While a fine representation of Springsteen’s own demographic, the album is also a stirring reflection of the country at large, as broadly ranging as it is personal to the artist’s own experience. An ever relevant classic, Nebraska remains a fascinating entry within the expansive catalog of one of modern music’s most influential figures, its voice distinctly American, its grim reality as urgent today as it was 40 years ago.

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.