BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN tore dozens of towns apart two years ago. The rock star often varied his performances during his most celebrated U.S. tour. But the result was consistent: With a devastated crowd as proof, Springsteen affirmed nightly his status as the quintessential American rock hero. Springsteen's 1980-81 tour--each concert frenetic, fresh and at least three hours in length--has few parallels. For pure hysteria, last year's tour by the Rolling Stones and the current Who circuit following the release of their new album are close comparisons. But Springsteen's shows did not simply arrest and frenzy people. The wealth and breadth of the New Jerseyan's songs forced the packed crowds to think and feel and suffer and contemplate as well as celebrate. Springsteen sent his crowds careening down his carefully detailed highways and turnpikes at varying speeds and over plenty of rough terrain. This artist refused to click on cruise control.
Because of the overwhelming success of The Boss's latest tour, many of his followers--greatly swelled in number--were expecting Springsteen's next album to be a live record. But instead the 33-year old performer has taken a tack which threatens the immense popularity he has recently gained after 10 years of unrivaled performing and recording. Nebraska, released last week, is a compelling and daring solo effort featuring the most severe music of Springsteen's career; with rarely more than an acoustic guitar, Springsteen confronts his America and its fallen characters in a most disturbing, direct and effective way.
Regardless of its risky commercial nature, Nebraska represents a brilliant accomplishment. From his first 1973 release--the stream of consciousness, Dylanesque Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.-- to the spare The River in 1980, he has continually relied more heavily on the characters and moods he creates, decreasing the importance of the music accompanying them. Springsteen fully realizes his role as a songwriter and chronicler of modern day America in his new album. In this raw, folk style, he actually produces a work offering many of the benefits of his long-desired live album. Recorded in his own basement on a four-track cassette recorder, these songs cut to the heart in a similarly unforgettable manner.
THE BOSS changes his approach to his urban themes of despair and limits on Nebraska. Where darkness and a desire to prove it all night have previously been prime concerns, there is now hopelessness and a desire to die. These songs are more directly personal, and the souls bared are badly damaged. Every one of the album's 10 cuts is chilling: two characters face electrocution for murders; there are two other shootings; another character seeks to elude a state trooper; four of his men are out of work. But the songs engross rather than repel because of their sincerity and severity.
"Nebraska," the title song, chronicles the true story of mass murderer Charlie Starkweather, who as a 19-year old in 1958 killed 10 Nebraskans in eight days--all with his 14-year old girlfriend by his side. The deaths were gruesome and the body count included the girlfriend's mother, stepfather and baby half-sister. In a pattern consistent throughout the disturbing album, Springsteen adopts the voice of the protagonist and it is a sympathetic, rather unjudgmental one. Borrowing lines from the true Starkweather story which was later popularized in the film Badlands, Springsteen writes: "I can't say that I'm sorry for the things that we done At least for a little while sir me and her we had some fun." The final line of "Nebraska" also comes from Starkweather, who was the last man electrocuted by the state of Nebraska. When asked why he had committed the murders, Starkweather said, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world."
This startling sensitivity for criminals and others beset with problems is drawn with equal explicitness on the cuts which follow "Nebraska." An unemployed autoworker in the song "Johnny 99" kills someone in a drunken stupor, for which he gets a 99-year prison term. The first-person explanation:
Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they was takin' my
Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all that put that gun in my hand
While Springsteen's sympathy for his victims does not aim to legitimize their actions, it effectively draws the connection between personal tragedies and larger social ills. The answers to these problems are not apparent and perhaps less so than they have been in less threatening times. But the despair which once prompted down trodden characters to "spit in the face of these badlands" and "take a knife and cut this pain from my heart" on previous albums now produces little of this feisty desire to combat debilitating odds. Pleads the jailed autoworker in "Johnny 99": "Then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line."
The characters in Nebraska endure further hardships, and each receives fair treatment from Springsteen's restrained guitar, wailing harmonica and moaning, groaning vocals. "Highway Patrolman" is a story narrated by one Sergeant Joe Roberts who maintains a close relationship to a no-good brother. Two other characters end their stories with a similar, pathetic command directed at no one in particular: "...deliver me from nowhere."
KEEP THE FAITH--that's been the standard Springsteen line. But the racing in the street, pretty darlings and rockin' and reelin' which have filled life's empty spaces in previous songs don't quite suffice in Nebraska. Springsteen addresses this familiar and reassuring theme in the album's final song, but the track, "Reason to Believe," is not so comfy. Here the narrator distances himself from his own chorus: "Struck me kinda funny, funny yea indeed, how at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe." On this album, Springsteen addresses more directly the hardships we either endure or ignore. The gloom afflicting Springsteen on this one song with a glimmer of hope shows there are no readily apparent solutions to much that troubles us.
But by addressing disturbing topics so unequivocally, Springsteen has markedly added to his accomplishments. With The Boss around, there will always be a reason to turn on the stereo and plunk down $15 for a concert.