1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
If you read Bruce Springsteen's lyrics, there is little doubt as to how politically and socially motivated they are. And yet this is lost many of his listeners. The main example is his hit "Born in The U.S.A," which is far from a patriotic anthem, but has still served as such for millions, including presidential nominees. It's easy to figure out why. With a large backing group like the E Street Band, Springsteen creates "stadium rock." Stadium rock isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when you look at some of the bands responsible for it, it's easy to understand how meaning gets tossed aside. "Nebraska" doesn't leave room for doubt.
At the onset, the album was going to be another step in the direction of "Born to Run" and "The River," the stadium rock sound. Springsteen decided to take a different approach to recording however. He completed all the work at his home with a cassette recorder, relying mainly on an acoustic guitar and a harmonica when laying down the ten tracks, intending to translate the songs for his band when he was done. After rerecording them with E Street, everyone involved (except maybe the band) agreed that the original "demo" should be the official release.
The key is matching the music with the mood. "Nebraska" wasn't just a set of rock 'n' roll commentaries like "Born In The U.S.A;" this stuff is bleak. It just wouldn't work with electric guitars and saxophone solos (only one track from "Nebraska" features an electric guitar: "Open All Night," a Chuck Berry-type number that is also the only positive song on the album). The title-track opens with a telling of a true-life killing spree, "Mansion on The Hill" serves as a metaphor on the unattainability of wealth, and "Reason to Believe," closes while almost mocking the optimism of the less fortunate. Springsteen's gentle finger-plucking and Dust Bowl harmonica lend to the mood.
The best and most-telling number is "Atlantic City," an ode to the gambling town in Springsteen's home state of New Jersey, and its 1976 beginnings as a gambling capitol and the organized crime that followed. Instrumentally, it follows the same guitar/harmonica strategy employed throughout the album. The narrator is obviously in the employ of the mafia, and he knows that it could literally be short-lived. "Well everything dies baby, that's a fact," he laments to his love. "Fix your hair pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City." He's come to grips with the uncertainty of life, but has passed on from pessimism to "Oh well, enjoy it while it lasts." It's a morbid outlook.
"Nebraska" seems like, but really isn't that far a cry from the Springsteen listeners are familiar with. He would jump back to the stripped-down style of the album for plenty of songs in his future, but never an entire album. I would argue that "Nebraska" represents the short folk music era of one of the world's biggest rock 'n' rollers.
INTERESTING FACT: "The chicken-man" mentioned in "Atlantic City" is Philip Testa, a leader of the Sicilian mob in Philadelphia. His murder set off the Philadelphia Mafia War, a struggle that resulted in at least 30 murders. His nickname came from his day job working in the poultry business.