At 40, Springsteen's "Nebraska" Holds Up as a Harbinger of Rural DespairBreaking News
tags: music, Bruce Springsteen, Rural History, popular culture
In 1982, Bruce Springsteen was at the height of his powers. Seven years earlier, his third album, Born to Run, had brought him global fame. “Springsteen is everything that has been claimed for him,” declared Rolling Stone. Critic Dave Marsh said he was “comparable to all the greats”. John Rockwell called him “the next Mick Jagger”. His next two albums, Darkness at the Edge of Town and The River, did nothing to dim his blazing star.
In a period of intense creativity, Springsteen wrote hundreds of songs for a much-anticipated follow-up. Intending to teach them to his band, he recorded them on a simple four-track tape machine in his New Jersey bedroom. Subsequent sessions in the studio could not replicate the intensity of these demos. They were too personal, immediate: the words often mumbled so softly they were barely discernible; the rhythm of the guitar-playing often broken. But rather than re-record these tapes himself, Springsteen released them, as Nebraska.
Everything about the album went against the spirit of the times. Ronald Reagan was two years into his first term after the Republicans swept the working-class heartlands of America in a landslide victory. The president believed storybook myths about his country: that its fortunes had been made by pioneering men and women on the western frontier, free from the restraining hand of the federal government. Reagan’s America was like the cowboy B-movies in which he had once starred: a land of heroes, opportunity, and sunny Hollywood optimism.
Nebraska was not optimistic. Its cover sleeve depicts a bleak sky, above a road to nowhere, ice on the windshield and, beneath it, the title in red, like a warning sign. It sold poorly and due to its troubling themes, Springsteen did not take it on tour. Nebraska was left to speak for itself. Today, exactly 40 years after its release, that voice is no less disquieting. Its characters are mostly out-of-work men, driven to the edge of madness, and sometimes beyond it, by poverty and despair. They commit petty acts of crime to make ends meet, or sometimes shocking acts of depravity.
The album’s opener, for instance, tells a fictionalised account of the crimes of Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old carpenter’s son who took his 14-year-old girlfriend on a killing spree around rural Nebraska in 1959. “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done,” reflects Springsteen’s Starkweather character, “at least for a while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.”
On Nebraska, Springsteen’s characters all speak in this idiomatic, first-person style, punctuated with “sirs” and “misters”. They speak in parables, of gleaming mansions on hills, of lost sons returning to fathers, of family loyalty chosen over duty. The economy of language owes much to the influence of Flannery O’Connor, the writer of Southern Gothic fiction, in whose profoundly Catholic vision grace is often found in moments of shocking violence. “She got to the heart of some meanness that she never spelled out,” Springsteen has said, inspired to create characters of his own. Her work, he later reflected, reminded him of the “unknowability of God”.