Saturday, September 20, 2014

Album Review - Nebraska

Today marks the 32nd birthday of Nebraska, one of Springsteen's most unique and unexpected albums.  For those familiar with Springsteen at all, you know this album's reputation.  Among the descriptors for Nebraska I have heard over the years are: dark, depressing, uncompromising, challenging, gritty, original, controversial, etc.  It is what makes this review difficult to write - this album has been dissected and analyzed so much these last three decades that I will inevitably end up using one or more of those cliche descriptions.  So, before getting into the review, allow me to indulge in something personal, since it may be the only original idea I will have going forward.

I have had a bias against this album for quite some time.  It really has nothing to do with its content, but rather all to do with what I just wrote about: it's reputation.  Too often, I have heard the album described the following way: "Even if you don't like Springsteen, you'll love Nebraska."  While you could interpret this as saying that Nebraska is Springsteen's best album, or it has a universal appeal, the context is often positioning this statement as a critique of most of Springsteen's other work.  "Here, listen to Nebraska.  It is actually artistic, not that like those other Springsteen records with their overblown sounds and corny lyrics."  It is insulting, yet it is not unusual to hear Springsteen fans themselves promote Nebraska to their non-Springsteen loving friends in the same manner.  So, based on this mildly pretentious description, I developed a resentment towards the album.  Did I like it?  Of course!  It's Springsteen!  But, I bestowed it with the one word used by many a snarky internet blogger: overrated.

But, admittedly, I was being an idiot.  What someone else says or thinks about an album shouldn't affect my enjoyment of it.  When seeking out new music, the first question should be "What is the music like?", not "Who else is listening to this?"  The concept of something being overrated or underrated is silly and arbitrary to begin with.  So, with the anniversary of the anniversary of the record approaching, I decided to try to clear my mind of all preconceived notions of the album and give it a fresh listen (I did the same with Working On A Dream earlier this year).

Upon my first listen, my thoughts immediately confirmed all the cliches I listed in the first paragraph.  It is certainly not a record where you can just put on and go clean the house.  It is a challenging listen to grasp all of what Springsteen is laying out there.  There are complicated characters, stories told from various viewpoints, and a harmonica motif that runs from the first song to the last.

Naturally, as I digested the album more, I found myself always drawn back to songs such as "Atlantic City", "Johnny 99", and "Reason To Believe", which are songs that were eventually given a full-band makeover in the 21st century.  "Atlantic City" is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen songs, and the nature of the lyrics leads to many variations: it can be a tale of a hero making one last stand against the forces of darkness, or the story of a loser deluding himself into yet another failure.  "Johnny 99" is everything that "Outlaw Pete" wishes it was - a raucous scoundrel story with a catchy riff.  "Reason To Believe" is a perfect note in ending the album, as it is probably the most uplifting song on the album (despite starting with the image of a dead dog).

What keeps bringing me back to the album is the themes, both musically and lyrically, that tie the album together.  For example, "Nebraska" starts and ends with a sad, distant harmonica, which is present in almost nearly every other song, such as "Mansion On The Hill" and "Used Cars".  This  harmonica turns upbeat in the concluding song "Reason To Believe".  Another theme is Springsteen's wailling, on "Johnny 99", we hear a joyous "woo!"  Yet, this turns to screams of anguish in "State Trooper".  The darkness permeating the album can be overwhelming at times.  Dirges such as "Mansion On The Hill" and "My Father's House", both dark lullabies about houses of some sort, are more whispered than sung, and are probably the most difficult to get into. Additionally, "Open All Night" stands out as an unusually track to include, as it is a rockabilly toe-tapper and the only song to use an electric guitar.

After going back, I would consider myself a convert to Nebraska.  It is an impressive experiment by Springsteen that has never been exactly duplicated. (Sidenote: While others may point to The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust as attempts to recapture Nebraska, I feel Springsteen's best recent "experiment" has been The Seeger Sessions).  It is not my all-time favorite Springsteen album, but it easily stands among his best work, and I would rate it as a 5 out of 5.

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