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Friday, February 10, 2012

Bruce Springsteen -- Nebraska


I hate reviewing stuff that's awesome.  It's way harder to praise something perfect than to bash something terrible. I'm reviewing my own collection, and I generally only buy stuff I like, so the scores are generally going to be high, but every 10 I hand out, I do with an almost heavy heart.  In this case, the only heaviness in my heart is coming from the fact that I know I can't do this album justice.
I am convinced that every non-Springsteen fan has an inaccurate image in their head of who Springsteen is and what he sounds like. Nebraska is that image breaker. Whatever you think Bruce Springsteen sounds like, it is probably not this.
But jeez, what does this sound like, rambling idiot?
Argh...well, could give history. Bruce recorded demos at his house on a four-track with mainly just a guitar a harmonica, and his voice, than attempted to re-record the tracks in the studio with his band. Unfortunately for his band, Bruce apparently had had one of those rare, direct-line-to-God moments when he recorded the original demos, and that magic could not be re-created. Fortunately for the human race, and also miraculously, the record label allowed their bankable star to do something very non-bankable: they released Bruce's original demos as is, and those demos are Nebraska.
Nebraska's songs come from the point of view of the losers, downtrodden, and the down-and-out. Three songs come from the point of view of someone facing law enforcement.  One of these, "State Trooper," got me hooked on this album.  I've previously mentioned that I first heard the song in high school on the Sopranos, and if I gained nothing else from that show, I still gained a great deal.

New Jersey Turnpike
Riding on a wet night
Beneath the refinery's glow
Out where the great black rivers flow
License, registration
I ain't got none
But I got a clear conscience
About the things that I done
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Please don't stop me, please don't stop me

Maybe you got a kid
Maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I've got
Been bothering me my whole life
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Please don't stop me, please don't stop me

In the wee wee hours
Your mind gets hazy
Radio relay towers
Lead me to my baby
Radio's jammed up
With talk show stations
It's just talk, talk, talk, talk
Till you lose your patience
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me

Hey, somebody out there
Listen to my last prayer
Hiho silver-o
Deliver me from nowhere

Now I have a kid AND a pretty wife, but I can still identify with this song more than just about anything. I don't see how any living human being wouldn't, at least at some point in life.  All of the songs have this kind of lyrical depth and emotion.  Some are almost emotionally unbearable.  "My Father's House" details a man who leaves the safety and grace of his father, only to return home too late.

Last night I dreamed that I was a child
Out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest
Before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees
And ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright
The branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride
From out on the road, I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch
A woman I didn't recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"

My father's house shines hard and bright
it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining across this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

Alright, it's probably about more than just that. This album isn't all downtempo acoutic songs, though. There are some great songs where Bruce lets it rip, like Atlantic City, which rocks harder than most of his full band tracks with just his voice, harmonica, acoustic guitar, and a mandolin.

Another up-tempo track, "Reason to Believe," closes Nebraska . It's repeated refrain of "at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe" is subtle and ambiguous. Some say he is being sarcastic, including the person who subjectively authored Nebraska's Wikipedia page, but to me Bruce seems optimistic about the fact that even after the worst of times, people can still find reasons for going on. This great album is filled with these kind of questions, and is well worth listening to for a lifetime. Anyone from Dustin Kensrue of Thrice to Ben Harper have attempted to cover Nebraska's songs. My cover of "State Trooper" is never going on Youtube, but that's not going to stop me from trying to do it better the next time. No one is going to do these songs the justice they are served on this album, but the fact that people keep trying is proof of its perfection.
Hey, I tagged this as a "tribute" for a reason.

1982 Columbia
1. Nebraska 4:31
2. Atlantic City 4:00
3. Mansion on the Hill 4:08
4. Johnny 99 3:42
5. Highway Patrolman 5:40
6. State Trooper 3:17
7. Used Cars 3:10
8. Open All Night 2:58
9. My Father's House 5:07
10. Reason to Believe 4:08

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