Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen (1982)

Forget the fist-pumping, flag-saluting, blue jean-wearing, stadium-rocking, truck-driving, Bud-swigging and wife-beating connotations usually associated with the man known as “The Boss”. Yes, he wore bandanas without a glimpse of irony, but Mr. Springsteen deserves some credit for more than a few bits of his career. The grand Born to Run (1975), for instance, with its iconic cover and dramatic narrative contents. That album was his breakthrough, with epically arranged rock songs that sound like a tribute to working class New Jersey. Another clear standout is Nebraska.

Like Born to Run, its two successors were bold, richly layered albums that were sonically very similar, and not particularly exciting as a result. It would be the titular song from The River (1980) that would form the blueprint for Nebraska, Springsteen’s first real left-turn of his career. The album’s sound is as stark, stripped down and raw as anything put to tape by a post-war artist, and its songs are expectably influenced by the tone. Each song is a story from America’s vast hinterland, a storyboard that begins only a few miles from each coast. [note: since publishing, I have come across the term "Heartland Rock" as a genre.] The largely acoustic accompaniment makes Nebraska a near-unplugged album, with a refreshing and humble honesty that was sorely lacking in Springsteen’s late 1970s output. It would also prove to be rather unique in this respect, as the bombastic, anthemic Born in the USA was a mere two years away.

The unusual tale of the actual recording of the album is included in Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever on its technical merits. Condensed for the sake of readability, it is presented below. Springsteen and his guitar technician recorded some demos at the former’s home, with neither being terribly competent at operating the portable recording system. To down-mix to a cassette, they used a Panasonic boom box that had previously fallen into a muddy river, been hosed down, dried out and still worked. The tape was then carried around in Springsteen’s jean jacket (you weren’t seriously expecting anything else, were you?) for weeks without a case. Returning to the studio, full-band renditions of the songs were found lacking the je-ne-sais-quoi of the rough demos. Eventually, it was decided to release the original recordings as the finished album, although transferring the poorly recorded and mastered tape to vinyl would prove a challenge.

This Teac Tascam 144 was the portable mixing desk used for recording Nebraska. The story laid out in Perfecting Sound Forever is based on an engineer's recollections on this site.

The finished album sounds exactly like something made by a man at home, laid down on a hosed down consumer-grade portable stereo. There is notable hiss, noise and a distinct “flatness” in the simple recordings, but it all adds to the charm and complements the subject matter. The sparse soundscapes form a folky, “American Gothic” that sounds like a less sappy, more gruff Simon and Garfunkel. The antiproduction is reminiscent of Neil Young’s more uncompromising albums (particularly 1975’s Tonight’s the Night), as is the singer-songwriter nature of the album. The cover of the album is shot from the front seat of a car, and lyrically, the album is a trip. The landscape is littered with tragic deadbeats, policemen (the haunting “State Trooper” and “Highway Patrolman”), and landmarks like “Atlantic City”, the most rousing and radio-friendly song on the album. Not many songs by mainstream artists mention the ever-dropping price of wheat, but the effects of the transformation of the American economy in the 1970s did not escape The Boss.

From beginning to end, Nebraska is a special album. Its bleak honesty, simple sound and vignettes of different rural characters make for an engaging late night listen. It would prove to be the peak of Springsteen’s artistic integrity before the onslaught of Born in the USA had him filling stadiums of reactionary Americans.

"Atlantic City" lost all of its charm when Springsteen couldn't resist adding 1980s drums, synthesizers and bandanas on his 1985 tour.