Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz offers some thoughtful reflections on Fred Goodman’s The Mansion on a Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce. In the process, he provides a nice review of Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album which I once said “captures the human condition more than any album he has ever produced.” Last year Nebraska celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Here is a taste of Gerhz’s post:
Even more propulsive is the one song recorded with an electric guitar: “Open All Night.” I can’t really improve on the Wikipedia description: “…a Chuck Berry-style lone guitar rave-up, does manage a dose of defiant, humming-towards-the-gallows exuberance.”
• Then there’s the eery “State Trooper,” with the guitar playing a one-note heartbeat while Springsteen’s voice murmurs as minimalist a melody as he’s written. The lyric takes us into the desperate mind of a criminal (“License, registration, I ain’t got none, but I got a clear conscience / ‘Bout the things that I done”) driving the New Jersey Turnpike in the “wee wee hours.”
Though worlds apart musically, “State Trooper” inhabits the same universe as “Open All Night,” which not only takes place in Jersey’s “wee wee hours” when your “mind gets hazy” and the “radio’s jammed up,” but also has its character close with the same prayer: “Deliver me from nowhere.”
There are hints that such a prayer can be answered: “Atlantic City” hopes that “maybe ev’rything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe ev’rything that dies someday comes back,” and “Used Cars” for the day when “I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again”; the album-closer decides that “at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” But Nebraska is daring not simply as a business decision, or even an artistic risk, but because a songwriter whose central theme is redemption has most of his characters question whether there truly is salvation from the sins (structural and personal) that bind, perplex, and torment us all. “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” says the mass murderer of “Nebraska” when asked “why I did what I did,” while “Johnny 99″ has “debts no honest man can pay” and tells the judge at sentencing, “I do believe I’d be better off dead.” While “My Father’s House” “shines hard and bright / It stands like a beacon calling me in the night,” it’s ultimately “so cold and alone / Shining `cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned.”
Good stuff.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-wPDmQEy2Y]
Michael Hattem says
As a songwriter myself, I think “Highway Patrolman” is one his most impressive efforts as a songwriter. He'd always been an interesting storyteller but in his early material the stories were often buried beneath the appearances of vaguely Dylan-esque characters. The specific storytelling aspect of his songwriting for me begins the road to maturity with Rosalita then gets pretty close with Thunder Road and Racing in the Street. But with Darkness and The River (albums), the stories get more realistic and, therefore, more gritty and more relatable. (I am of course being overly-general, as I'm leaving out lots of songs in between). But, by the time you get to Nebraska, his storytelling songwriting has matured to the point where he can produce and deliver such a devastating songwriting and musical performance as “Highway Patrolman” with the sparest of settings.
John Fea says
I couldn't agree more Michael, although “Jungleland” is some pretty darn good storytelling for my money. Thanks for the comment.