“Down here its just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line/ Well I’m tired of coming out on the losing end.” So goes one of the pivotal lines of “Atlantic City,” the only single, and the watershed moment of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska.
On almost every Springsteen compilation, “Atlantic City” is the black sheep, standing alone in a catalog filled with horn-filled rave-ups of rebellion and romance, and simple, stout rockers detailing the darker sides of the American dreeam.
Nebraska as a whole is an extreme outlier in his discography. Recorded by Springsteen alone with a four-track recorder, the album is made up entirely of Springsteen’s vocals and acoustic playing.
If you’re not familiar with Nebraska, or its two lesser follow-ups The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust, it may be a jarring sonic experience. But, in tone and message, it isn’t too far removed from much of Springsteen’s post Born to Run work.
Gone were the hot, endless summer nights of his early records, and in its place were desperate tales of characters who had indeed come out on “the wrong side of that line.” The settings of Nebraska are typically fluid, the often listless and confused characters staring at futures as undefined and murky as the long, endless highways they spend much of their time on.
The tales here rarely end on a positive note, coming to conclusions that are brutally realistic in both the lack of answers they provide, and the despair that they do leave with you. Perspective is vital in all ten of these songs. The title track, detailing the teenage serial killer Charles Starkweather, is all the more haunting coming from the perspective of Starkweather himself, who Springsteen uses as a narrative voice.
The police officer in “Highway Patrolman” introduces himself, before saying to you “I always done an honest job/as honest as I could/I got a brother named Frankie, and Frankie ain’t no good.” Over the next five and a half minutes, Springsteen weaves a poignant, sad tale. The officer assures you that “man turns his back on his family/well he just ain’t no good,” while simultaneously struggling to deal with the complications his brother’s law-breaking behavior throws into his line of work. As you follow the officer and his brother, Springsteen’s waltz-like, distant acoustic never strays or wavers, providing an almost ominous pulse to the piece right up until its beautiful conclusion.
On “State Trooper,” you never learn the background or name of the narrator. He just tells you “License, registration/I ain’t got none/But I’ve got a clear conscience/About the things that I’ve done.” What those “things” are is never revealed; the only other piece of information the narrator reveals about himself is “The one thing that I got/has been bothering me my whole life.” The palm-muted riff that is Springsteen’s sole accompaniment very slowly gathers pace as the narrator grows more paranoid, begging the unseen and unheard state trooper to not stop him with an ever-increasing intensity.
“Used Cars” and “Mansion On the Hill” take the perspective of a young Springsteen. In the former, he sits with his family in their “brand new used car,” as his equally blue-collar neighbors watch with envy. In the latter, Springsteen stares with wonder at a mystical mansion that occupies the edge of his town. The splendor Springsteen attributes to the house makes it almost Gatsby-like, but in the back of his young mind there is always the mindset that that sort of residence will only ever be obtainable to him in dreams.
“My Father’s House” is the album’s most personal, and most devastating, moment. Springsteen alternates between the perspectives of himself as a scared child and as an adult. He dreams, as a child, of being chased through a dark forest, only to find his father waiting in the light, ready to catch him and save him from the threat. He awakes as an adult, and it becomes quickly apparent that a massive distance has grown between the narrator and his father. Suddenly determined to reconcile, he gets in his car and takes a long drive to the home of his youth, only to find a woman he doesn’t recognize who informs him “I’m sorry son, but no one by that name lives here anymore.” Immediately after that line, a mournful harmonica sweeps in to drive the absence, and subsequent sadness, home.
Although Springsteen has always been magical with his E Street Band comrades, Nebraska is his finest hour. He manages to, in a ten-song cycle, capture the death of the American dream, and the despair that goes with it. His characters couldn’t be more vivid, while the stories they tell are both engrossing and entirely relatable. There’s a bit of each of these characters in all of us, whether we’d like to admit it or not, and in that lies Nebraska’s true brilliance.
More from Bruce Springsteen at www.brucespringsteen.net
Jackson Maxwell is a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is double majoring in history and journalism. He is an editorial assistant at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and has his own music blog entitled "Broken Drums." You can follow him here at http://broken--drums.tumblr.com/