Allegedly the band tried full arrangements of all the songs, and all would be performed on future tours. “Open All Night” is a breathless rockabilly tune begging for a rhythm section, and “Johnny 99” chugs along amiably. “Atlantic City” got some local airplay and even a Bruce-less video; beyond those, it’s easy to see the appeal in these simple recordings with their simple acoustics and subtle overdubs. (Also, being first drafts, the lyrics have yet to get the polish they’d likely gain from multiple studio takes.)
Many of the songs are character-driven, an extension of the stories he began to tell on The River. As has come to be expected, a lot of the narrators are driving, from the serial killer in the title track to the unhinged individual trying to avoid the “State Trooper”. That song follows the tale narrated by a “Highway Patrolman”, caught between family honor and civic duty.
Some of the more interesting songs suggest a look back at his childhood. The starry-eyed vision of the “Mansion On The Hill” makes an excellent balance for “My Father’s House”, where things apparently aren’t so opulent. The dichotomy of the class system portrayed in “Used Cars” gives some perspective on where his automotive fascination may have stemmed.
While each of his albums thus far boasted some kind of “epic”, here we only have “Reason To Believe” to sum up the program. Its suggestion of a rhythm supports snapshots of struggling individuals, giving a more universal spin to a title borrowed from Tim Hardin by way of Rod Stewart and countless others. (In a pointed example of programming, the sides aren’t balanced time-wise; the first six songs make side one 25 minutes long, while the last four equal 15 minutes.)
Nebraska wasn’t a huge hit, seeing as the songs weren’t exactly radio-friendly. It’s an album that demands attention, sometimes getting so quiet you can barely hear it, only to leap out of the speakers with a whoop and scare you to death. It’s tempting to give it a higher rating for its daring step outside what was then considered his standard sound. But it certainly helped him gain some credibility as a guy who put art before commerce, and boy, would he need it going forward.
Bruce Springsteen Nebraska (1982)—3½