Tuesday, November 6, 2007
No. 224: Nebraska
Band: Bruce Springsteen
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Nebraska" is Springsteen's least radio-friendly album and it's one of his most critically acclaimed. The record's spare production is a function of the song's starkness and it's actually quite listenable.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Springsteen is still Springsteen. Even on the one record of his I don't hate, there are points where I groan in pain.
Best song: Probably the title track, with its clear literary influences.
Worst song: "Used Cars" isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: It's the best Springsteen album. That's like being the smartest idiot, but it's something.
"Nebraska" was Springsteen's last non-radio album, succeeded immediately by "Born In The USA," his most radio-friendly album. For what it's worth, it's the record I like the most from him.
I have some friends who lived for a while in West Texas, which, I presume, is a lot like the (mostly mythical) Midwest/Dust Bowl Springsteen writes about. You know, the type of place where you can drive on the highway and not see anything for 100 miles. The band Explosions in the Sky (a favorite of mine) makes music that sounds like the vast expanses of West Texas; the movie and TV show "Friday Night Lights" uses Explosions records as theme music.
This appears to be what Springsteen is trying to get at and I probably shouldn't discount it. Damien Jurado (Seattle native that he is) did a similar thing on the fantastic "Where Shall You Take Me?" Most of the time, Springsteen's songs are misplaced as Dust Bowl and Midwestern settings; The E Street Band fills the record with cacophony of sax, extra guitars and backup singers.
"Nebraska" doesn't have that. Because the label simply released Springsteen's demos -- in lieu of getting the full band treatment -- the records solely feature harmonica, vocals and guitar on most songs. I don't love his voice, but his narrative songwriting is well-placed on this sort of folk turn.
"Highway Patrolman" is the typical "Nebraska" track. It's a wonderful little storytelling experiment about two brothers, set in Ohio. The song has the classic Springsteen themes -- Lots of driving, farming and crime -- and Springsteen fills in the gaps with his grizzled voice.
I've mentioned that I don't love Springsteen's voice. Because of this, I wholly recommend "Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska." It's a tribute album from Sub Pop records. Some of the best Springsteen imitators (Crooked Fingers, Son Volt, Jurado, Ben Harper, etc.), country singers (Johnny Cash, Hank Williams III, etc.) and other mildly famous people (Ani DiFranco, Los Lobos, etc.) appear on the record. The songs vary from the great to the weird, but, generally, it's better than the original (you knew I was going to say that).
Still, "Nebraska" is the best Springsteen album. It takes all the good elements of Springsteen -- the writing, the road-weary outlook, etc. -- without all the nonsense.