The Friday Morning Listen: Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)

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So we’ve been in the process of getting our ancient house ready for sale. What this means is that there’s been a ton of cleaning, sorting, sneezing, donating, tossing out, and packing. Oh, did I mention the sneezing? What law of physics allows dust to get in a closed box that’s been sitting beneath two other boxes in a closet that’s barely been opened in five years?

The night before last I was going through my office and decided that I would like to get rid of my filing cabinet. I was betting that much of the stuff in there I still had only because I had the cabinet. Sure enough, many of the folders contained things like warranty information from VCRs purchased 20 years ago, printouts of academic-level music papers, and tons of “important” newspaper articles. There were a few gems to be found though, like the photo of my Uncle Stanley at his polka DJ job, a handful of Polaroids of old girlfriends (Shhhh! I’m not tellin’!), and my high school freshman photo ID, which claims I was fourteen even though the picture makes me look like I’m in 5th grade or so.

The best find was a newspaper clipping of a review of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album, taken from the Bangor Daily News. I wondered why I’d kept the thing but then I saw the paper clip holding on another piece of paper: my response sent back to the paper. I’d really forgotten that I even did that. An inch or so further down in the pile revealed a photocopy of the original letter, obviously done up on a typewriter. Yeah, it was a while ago.

So here is the review and then my response. I’d love to say that it was this episode that sparked my interest in music writing. It’s not true, though there are parts of the review that are characteristic of the music “journalism” that made me take up the craft. Namely, the snotty put-down and the misstatement of fact. My reply isn’t particularly well-written, but man…my 21-year old self sure was pissed off!


Springsteen album falls flat

by Paul Grosswiler, News staff

About all New Jersey and Nebraska have in common is that they both start with the letter “N,” a dismaying fact that should have warned Bruce Springsteen not to attempt to transplant his ballads of the boardwalk and rockers of the working class to the Midwest.

For his album “Nebraska” on Columbia, Springsteen has traded in his superb E Street Band and his scorching electric guitar for a reedy sounding harmonica and a dusty solo acoustic guitar.

He has given Midwestern accents to his uneducated, car-crazed boy heroes and smalltime hoods. In the process, he has taken the adventure and innocence out of their New Jersey counterparts that populated the rites of passage in “Born To Run” and earlier albums.

Many of the first-person narrators in “Nebraska” sound dully derivative of Capotes’s “In Cold Blood” in this poorly conceived collision of crimes and cars. A mass murderer who must be patterned after a killing spree dramatized in the film “Badlands” talks away his crime because of a “meanness in this world.” Another criminal sentenced to life in prison claims he would be better off sentenced to death.

Sounding as if recorded in drab hotel rooms in New Jersey, Springsteen’s voice is alternately distant and dull, flat and fuzzy in its instrumental isolation. The strength of his dynamic band is conspicuously absent, although not even its most imaginative arrangements could save these humdrum songs.

Musically, the apparent solo effort — no musicians are credited — is a throwback to the Depression laments of Woody Guthrie combined with the hiccup singing of Buddy Holly’s hollow ’50s. Desolate dustbowl ballads about crimes predominate, although one ballad is about a used car.

Several guitar strummed rockers about cars, except one about crime and one that snuck in about Atlantic City, lift the album to what low heights it achieves. Two wispy, vaguely hopeful songs are based on gospels and hymns, but seem chained to weary repetition.

The album suffers from a lack of musical imagination and power, which Springsteen’s band always delivered regardless of his characteristically juvenile and sophomoric lyrics. The E Street Band, sounding like a big band that switched to rock, always played with letter-perfect precision and creative energy.

Stripped of his band, Springsteen is stripped of his rock ‘n’ roll power, a conclusion that could have been drawn without going as far as producing an album to prove it.

Two songs on “Nebraska” end nearly identically, one with “Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer/Hi ho silver-o deliver me from nowhere.” The other: “Hey Mr. Deejay won’t you hear my last prayer/Hey Ho rock ‘n’ roll deliver me from nowhere.”

At least the Boss knows where he is, and, maybe by the time he puts together his next album he will deliver himself, and his audience, from the nowhere that “Nebraska” inhabits.


To the Editor:

Paul Grosswiler’s review of Bruce Springsteen’s most recent album, ‘Nebraska’, is as far off base as is his understanding of the theme and purpose of the album.

The characters in ‘Nebraska’ are in despair. They are looking for a way out of an oppressive and claustrophobic life situation — a situation which is deteriorating and from which there seems to be no escape. This accounts for the stark nature of the music. A realistic picture of an existence without hope is neither pretty nor upbeat.

Keeping all this in mind we can see that the charter in ‘Used Cars’ is lamenting the fact that his father must buy another substandard used car. He vows that a day will come when he can afford a better car…one that is not used. ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Reason To Believe’ point out that, no matter how bad things are, there is something about human nature that allows us to believe that there will be better times.

As for Mr. Grosswiler’s insults — of Bruce’s lyrical talents…’characteristially juvenile…’ — and of the state of his career in terms of album production…’At least the Boss knows where he is…’ — they were truly unnecessary. Because I have no formal training in the area of journalism I would consider it inappropriate to comment on the reviewer’s writing talents. For this reason Mr. Grosswiler should refrain from expounding upon Springsteen’s solo musical talent. Opinions are a valued commodity in our society Mr. Grosswiler, uneducated guesses are not.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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