We’re all from New Jersey here, and Bruce Springsteen is our native son. We grew up with his pure bred rock anthems, from the punch out of
“Born to Run” to the swells of his most recent release, “The Rising.” Springsteen is part of our heritage. But his 1982 release “Nebraska” signaled a departure from the typical brassy, energetic rock we’ve come to expect from the Boss.
Instead of sweeping electric guitars and horns, we are met with subdued acoustic sounds and harmonicas. The songs on this album were basically left in their original demo format, an appropriate approach considering their content. They are dark, brooding, yet earnest songs about hard times and desperate people, such as the title track, a first-person account of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather’s killing spree. Starkweather killed 10 people, including a two-year-old girl, from 1957 to 1958.
Starkweather was a desperate man, desperate to marry his girlfriend, 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, desperate for money and desperate for escape from Nebraska.
After his arrest in 1958, he bragged about the murders, claiming that they were all committed in defense of Caril, his accomplice. He was sentenced to death.
This story sets the tone for the album, reckless people justifying their misdeeds, “They wanted to know why I did what I did, well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings.
This theme is followed up in ‘”Highway Patrolman,” a story about the deep bond of brotherhood. The story is about a state police officer, Joe Roberts, his brother Franky, who follows a somewhat looser lifestyle, and the conflict that results when Franky gets in trouble with the law. “Well, if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away, but when it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way.” One night, after a nasty roadhouse brawl, as one boy lies bleeding from his head, Joe chases Frank towards the Canadian boarder before letting him get away.
The album yielded one hit, the plaintive “Atlantic City,” a song leaden with a deep sense of foreboding.
“This song was about the early-’80s gold rush when gambling hit south Jersey,” Springsteen wrote in 1995. It’s a story about the weight of debt, and the hope that still clings even in dark times.
“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” Springsteen croons, with the aid of an acoustic guitar, a mandolin and a harmonica to back his rusty sounding voice. “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”
This quiet desperation and the need to escape, reaches a head in one of my favorite tracks on the album, the haunting ‘”State Trooper.” It’s a bare song with only Springsteen singing with an echoed lull, and a muted guitar that spits out a simple blues structure. It is a song that pleads and begs, “Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife, the only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life. Mr. State Trooper, please don’t stop me.” He breaks out, his voice cracking in tinny cries of near reverie as he sings of his late-night drive on the Turnpike.
However, as the album goes on, we find seeds of hope among the malaise. It comes in the form of songs such as ‘”Reason to Believe,” the album’s closing track. It follows the same skeletal format as the rest of the album, with faded vocals and a strong acoustic presence. The song spins out several haunting and terrible scenes before concluding, “Still at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe.”
Springsteen strives to show us on this album that life, even though it may be quiet and desperate at times, does go on. Though it isn’t the material one typically expects from New Jersey’s golden son, it is a beautiful, poignant departure – one certainly worth exploring.