As his riveting new album suggests, Bruce Springsteen‘s most admirable trait may be the strength of his convictions. While other superstars struggle to replicate the formulas that took them to the top, Springsteen’s latest represents a radical departure not only from its five predecessors but from many of the elements that commercial success in 1982 would seem to require. While other artists clutter the field with Hallmark card-style lyrics that ultimately say nothing, moreover, the words on Nebraska are worth a thousand pictures—and every one of those pictures evokes compassion.
Listening to the album for the first time, though, you primarily notice the sound, which is a million miles from the high-powered, Phil Spector-influenced rock anthems that put Springsteen on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Recorded on a four-track cassette machine and featuring just Bruce, his guitars, and harmonica, the LP aims for the heart of the folk tradition with straightforward, mostly low-key vocals and unadorned performances. Never mind that precedents for this approach are sprinkled throughout the singer’s career—from his unrecorded early East Coast work to relatively recent tunes like “Meeting Across the River” and “Wreck on the Highway”; hearing an entirely solo, largely acoustic Springsteen album at this point is as shocking as was Bob Dylan’s move in the opposite direction in 1965.
Like its music, Nebraska‘s subjects are not without precedent. Bruce continues to write about both his father and his native New Jersey, for example, and as for his preoccupation with automobiles, several of the protagonists here are singing from behind the wheel and one is on a used-car lot.
Throughout the album, though, the real subject is people—the ones for whom the American dream will at best always remain just that. In one song, an ostensibly poor character recalls a mansion in his hometown that fueled his childhood fantasies. In another, the singer laments his lower-class father’s purchase of a used car and declares, “Now mister the day the lottery I win, I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again.”
Many of Springsteen’s new characters cling to even weaker hopes. Having run out of luck, love and money, for instance, the protagonist of “Atlantic City” concludes that “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” As for “Johnny 99,” whose nickname results from the number of years in his prison term, the big wish is that the judge will reconsider the sentence “and let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line.”
This review can only hint at the eloquence of the lyrics, which paint whole lives with rich but remarkably economical strokes and which frequently rival the best of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. If that sounds like an overstatement, you probably haven’t heard this album’s title cut, a chilling portrait of mass-murderer Charlie Starkweather, or the nightmarish “My Father’s House,” a heart-wrenching search for the ties that bind. Certainly you haven’t heard “Highway Patrolman,” which in a little more than five irony-packed minutes tells us everything we need to know about a plaintive policeman and his trouble-prone brother, an apparent murderer. “Me and Frankie laughin’ and drinkin’,” reminisces the cop, “nothin’ feels better than blood on blood / Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria, as the band played ‘Night of the Johnstown Flood’ / I catch him when he’s strayin’, like any brother would / Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good.”
God knows, Springsteen has written happier songs than these. But never has he had a firmer grasp on his characters. Or his art.