In 1980, after releasing four albums that had gained him critical acclaim and a small but loyal following, Bruce Springsteen came out with The River. The commercial breakthrough led him to be dubbed “the Boss” and the savior of rock ‘n’ roll. Springsteen recorded the follow-up to The River in his living room with a four-track recorder, a guitar and a harmonica. The 1982 Nebraska, a dark, sociopolitically conscious album, was dismissed as a career ender. Of course, Springsteen’s career did not end. This past year he released The Rising, which will probably earn him a 10th Grammy, and reunited with his E Street Band for one of the most successful tours of all time. And while I’m truly not sure why he sells out Madison Square Garden in 30 seconds, I do very much believe that Nebraska is a masterpiece.
I’m fairly sure “Born in the U.S.A.” is supposed to be ironic, although it has somehow become an anthem for jingoism. The Rising is similarly ambiguous, and the Boss could be George W. Bush’s very best friend for all I know. Nebraska, on the other hand, unabashedly sympathizes with the working man’s vulnerability to an economy controlled by the wealthy. Springsteen, singing about Mary Lou who is one day “up and left” by Johnny, wonders how “at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” He promises that “the day the lottery I win / I ain’t never going to ride in no used car again” before breaking into a harmonica solo that would make Woody Guthrie jealous. The Boss begs “Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer / Hiho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere” over his softly strummed acoustic guitar.
The musical and lyrical folksiness of the album is undeniable; at its heart, after all, is the common man. That’s not to say, though, that its characters are all heroes, or that Springsteen even sympathizes with them. In “Johnny 99,” like on the title track, he sings about a jobless man who murdered innocents and was sentenced to die: “Judge don’t take my boy like this,” his mother cries out. Springsteen doesn’t attempt to clear up the moral ambiguities surrounding issues like the death penalty or welfare. Nonetheless, Nebraska’s intense empathy for middle-class America makes up for Springsteen’s unclear politics. There’s no rule that tunes about men at the end of their ropes absolutely have to be morally clear, and that vagueness only makes the brooding folksiness of the record more enjoyable.
Nebraska taps into the heart of folk music without abandoning the essence of rock ‘n’ roll — only a handful like Bob Dylan’s Bring It All Back Home and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush have. Without the album there would be no Pearl Jam and no Elliott Smith, to name a few, and there certainly wouldn’t be Bruce Springsteen as we know him. Well, maybe there would be. What’s important is that after Reagan asked to use “Born in the U.S.A.” in his campaign, the Boss told the President: “No.”