Deliver Me From Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ at 40

Perhaps because of what followed — the next album, the acclaim — Springsteen’s decision to make the ultimate lo-fi album seems even more prescient, appropriate, and perfect. If Darkness on the Edge of Town was a, well, darker departure from Born To Run, then Nebraska, after the mostly genial proceedings on The River, was like a belly flop into the abyss.

Nebraska carries with it death, despair and the electric chair — and that’s just on the opening song. If Springsteen had carved out an affirmative niche, cataloging the difficult paths traveled and infrequent respites rewarded to our working stiffs, he now turned his sights on the dispossessed, the down-and-outs, the embittered outcasts and the irredeemable hard-cases. On Nebraska, he’s not simply telling their stories (often without apology or unease), he is also using their seemingly preordained fates as a commentary on the things that don’t get mentioned when we talk about the American Dream. Nebraska is not a dark album so much as an album filled with voices calling out, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, from a vast, inescapable darkness.

After more than 40 years of declining middle class wages and a major recession that saw taxpayers bailing out the cretins that caused it, much of what Springsteen sings about seems familiar, quaint, and perhaps even a bit naïve. That is why Nebraska is still important now, and why it was radical in its time. Springsteen might not have been the first major artist to call out the Reagan Revolution as the farce it was, but he certainly had the biggest bullhorn. Nebraska could only be called a political album by those who consider an examination of cause and effect a political act.

This is, in so many ways, Springsteen’s most human album, not just because of its stripped-down aesthetic, but because each song deals directly with the themes he’s made a career stalking like a stenographer: the would-be criminals, the convicted, the could-be champions. and the ones born beneath the underdog, to quote Charles Mingus. Nebraska joins the ranks of essential but demanding albums, like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. This record is not one you return to for pleasure, though the pleasures are manifold; instead, it’s one you return to in appreciation, to savor and pay witness. Like all great art that tells us what we need to know and don’t necessarily want to know, we must be thankful that someone else, using fiction, has created a kind of reportage that is truer than newspaper truth.

Nebraska remains a work that insists on being absorbed in a single setting, each song anticipating and in some cases commenting upon the next. The immortal line “I got debts no honest man could pay” turns up twice and the notion of inevitability, be it debt or death, is a running leitmotif throughout all ten songs.

Still, the single line that unifies the whole is another that surfaces in two separate songs: “Deliver me from nowhere”. The narrator of the title track, recalling The Misfit from Flannery O’Connor, is resigned to his fate (“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”). The man staring down life in prison in “Johnny 99” has an indictment for those indicting him (“It was more than all this that put that gun in my hand”). The aimless driver who may or may not be describing a felony-in-progress (again recalling the Misfit) offers the ultimate J’accuse! to an indifferent universe (“The only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life”). Yet after the various encounters and carnage have unfolded, the Boss — both judge and jury — offers up a refrain that defines his very American sensibility: “At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.”

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Sean Murphy

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net