By Ethan Cook
In this series, I’m going back in time and revisiting some of the music of the past. Personally, I always enjoy listening to old albums and trying to understand how the music was historically important and where the artists took their influences and how they created something new. Putting modern music in the context of what came before it can place modern artists in an entirely new light as they synthesize an array of influences, conscious and unconscious, into their own unique sound. And, old music is good music too!
I recently listened to an episode of the Broken Record podcast where Rick Rubin and Malcom Gladwell interviewed Bruce Springsteen, and I was struck by Springsteen’s awareness of his creative process, influences and his overall poise as an artist. In my head, I had pegged Springsteen as this very patriotic, somewhat superficial, rockstar of yesteryear. I was dead wrong. Springsteen came off as a genuine musician in this interview, and one quote in particular really turned me on to his music. When asked about Nebraska, his 1982 album, Bruce says, “I’ve heard [Nebraska] called the first acoustic punk-rock album.” After listening to Nebraska a half-dozen times in the past week I can put my stamp of approval on that label, and consider myself incredibly lucky for having stumbled upon this absolute gem of a record. Now, I’m here to convince you to give it a shot and attempt to explain what makes it so special.
As stated earlier, it’s easy to see Springsteen’s music as a homogenous, patriotic fare, but digging a little deeper into his back catalog reveals a range of themes and perspectives captured in Springsteen’s lyrics and melodies. Nebraska specifically focuses on a sort of American down on their luck: typically blue collar, sometimes criminals, often stuck with nowhere to go. The tracks on the album capture stories of family loss, poor decisions and a lack of opportunity among the cast of characters Springsteen embodies. Other work by Springsteen and the E Street Band are usually optimistic, but not Nebraska. As Springsteen’s first solo work, he opted for a bare bones production style that leaves the somber lyrics on full display, and the lyrical work is where the emotional power of this record lies. Springsteen captures a kind of emotion unique to the stories he tells in Nebraska; emotion that is desperately sad, yet resigned to a lifetime of enduring that sadness. These are the stories and sentiments of people left behind by society’s endless march of “progress;” people who were once factory workers or farmers, but now are only left with rusting cars and dilapidated houses. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, these are stories I’ve seen play out in my local community, and it’s a rare thing to see them captured by mainstream artists. Country music is seen as the music of rural America and blue collar workers, but modern country seems increasingly detached from the reality of rural life. Springsteen, despite his immense success, manages to stay in touch with the reality of life outside of the city, and he documents this reality in Nebraska.
Across all of Springsteen’s records cars feature heavily as a symbolic device, and Nebraska is no different. Out of ten songs on the album, more than half explicitly feature cars as part of the story, but what they symbolize is not always the same. In “Open All Night,” a track about racing home after work to see a significant other, the car symbolizes freedom, individuality and wealth in a somewhat familiar form. This use of the symbol of a car can be seen all throughout American pop culture. One clear example of a similar symbolic use is in Back to the Future; Marty knows he corrected the damage to his timeline when he sees a brand new truck in the garage. On the flip side, the car is a tool of escapism in “State Trooper” where the spiteful narrator dodges state troopers during his flight from the problems of society. This symbolism of a car is a little different, but not unfamiliar. A common example of a car symbolizing escape is the ‘getaway’ driver in any heist or crime film, the car is a tool to avoid problems and get to a better place. Finally, Springsteen also uses the car as a way to represent societal status in the track “Used Cars.” The song tells the story of a poor family that spends their hard earned money to buy a used car, only for the rest of the neighborhood to look down on them for not being able to afford a new car. The narrator recognizes how unfair it is that his parents work so hard to afford so little, and swears to never ride in a used car again. This is also a spin on a common pop culture trope. Think back to establishing shots in classic movies; the film will often include cars when introducing new scenes, and the condition of the cars shown is a major clue to the wealth of the area. Springsteen is using the same symbolism here in “Used Cars.” Throughout the album, Bruce uses the symbol of a car to represent such a range of values and meanings, and often I can think back on my own childhood in farm town U.S.A. and see examples of these same relationships with vehicles. To me, Springsteen’s varied use of the car as a symbol is an indication of his lyrical prowess, and just one example that can be found on Nebraska.
This review took me a long time to write. Honestly, Nebraska was an emotional gut punch for me, it took me a while to formulate all my emotions into coherent sentences and I’m still not sure I’m totally happy with how this review turned out. In the event that it did not make as much sense as I’d hoped, here’s the upshot: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen is a phenomenal album that encapsulates the reality of a neglected rural America. Springsteen is a lyrical wizard and true musician, not the stereotypical patriot he can come across as, and I hope you give Nebraska a chance.
Thanks for reading, and make sure to check out the ‘Further Exploration’ list below!
- Maya Hawke’s debut album, Blush
- Bruce is kind of a cutie
- S.G. Goodman’s debut album, Old Time Feeling, takes classic southern storytelling (like Springsteen’s on Nebraska), and puts it through a progressive, queer filter
- For the guitar folk: Bruce played his signature telecaster continuously from 1973-2005, until it literally fell apart.