So what do you do when you're not only creatively respected, but have also sold millions of records and can consistently sell out stadiums and arenas? Bruce Springsteen’s answer was to release a stark, mostly acoustic, back-to-basics album named Nebraska.
Springsteen recorded the songs for this album twice, originally on a basic 4-track cassette player with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica except on one track, on which he played an electric guitar. He then went into the studio and recorded them with the E Street Band, but he ultimately decided to release the stripped down versions.
Incidentally, about twenty years ago I saw Springsteen perform an electrified version of “Mansion On The Hill” complemented with accordion.
Springsteen would continue to write character stories, although here the narratives are told in the first person. The stories are desperate, dangerous, disappointing, hopeless and brooding. It's a collection of unfulfilled dreams and in many ways it's a modern folk album with a very intimate feel. It would sell less than his last three popular releases, but would bring him more critical acclaim.
The title song, which opens the work, sets the tone for what will follow, its lyrics telling the story of killer Charles Starkweather, who along with his 14 year old girlfriend killed eleven people in late 1957 and early 1958. Springsteen actually uses one of Starkweather's statements — "I guess there’s just a meanness in the world” — as the song's final line, which depicts the moments before his execution. The song is unrelenting in its darkness and lack of hope.
Similarly, “Johnny 99” is another tale of murder, in which the killer gets 99 years in prison but pleads with his judge to instead hand down a death sentence. Continuing a trend of a lack of ethics, "Atlantic City," probably the album's best known track, deals in themes of death and precarious relationships.
Other tracks, such as “Mansion On The Hill,” would explore dreams unrealized but at least remembered. “Highway Patrolman,” “Used Cars,” and “My Father’s House” only added to Springsteen's cast of less-than-stellar characters. “Reason To Believe” ends the album just as darkly, but at least some hope prevails.
Nebraska will appeal to some but not others. For me, it's a work that I respect but not one I turn to very often as it poses a tremendously difficult listen. Nevertheless, this album remains a dark masterpiece in the Springsteen catalogue.