What The F*** Is Wrong With You??: The New Guy Reluctantly Reviews Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska"

What's crackin', Internet?  Let me take a moment to introduce myself.  I'm Scott, the new Assistant WebLog Content Creation Intern here at The Jeopardy of Contentment.  You may have read Chris' extremely flattering introduction here.  Although I appreciate his exuberant eloquence, it was all pretty much bullshit.  I'm just a guy who happens to own a couple CD's, played in a few local bands,  and lucked into writing a book series teaching junior-high-aged kids how to start a band.  (I mean seriously, when you're 13, starting a band is easy as fuck.  But they payed me more than I ever made actually playing in a band, so yeah, irony.)

Annnyyyyywwwaaayyyyy....so, writing on this blog will be a bit of a challenge for me.  Chris has forgotten more about music than I'll ever know, and Matt has forgotten more about music than Chris will ever know. (They are both pretty forgetful.  Which makes it easy to steal their change when the JoC office orders lunch and I'm sent to go get it. Thanks for the free Panini, suckers!)  Chris and Matt get deep into the new stuff.  Like three-knuckle deep-deep.  I swear to God that Matt hears about bands before they even form.  I'm more of a pop hook/melody/production appreciation guy, and  I'll listen to anything that Pandora or AppleMusic randomly plays.  Seriously.  I own Taylor Swift's "Fearless" on CD.  And The Revolting Cocks' "Linger Ficken Good".  Those two albums have no business being together on a shelf.  Yet, here they are. Proof!

So yeah, my stuff on this blog is gonna come from the mind of the guy that payed actual money for the CD's you see pictured above.  You remember earlier, when I said I'd listen to anything?  Well, that was kind of a lie.  I'm not really into sparse "guy/girl and guitar and sad bastard lyrics" stuff.  You know, the self-important musicians that think their four arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords and earnest lyrics about super important issues makes their album an important contribution to art.  That may be, Mr. Singer-Songwriter, but if I play that shit in the car, I'm going to fall asleep. And die. And I don't want your art to literally kill me.  Jesus!  Let someone play some drums!  Plug your guitar in!  Give me an interesting riff that I can hum to myself two days later and wonder where the fuck I heard it!
(Exception: Elliot Smith, because he makes me cry. In a good way. Don't judge me!) 

So imagine how pleased I was to hear that Chris had selected my first What The F*** Is Wrong With You? album review, and it was Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska".  Fuck.  
(Should I be typing "F***" instead of "fuck", since that's how it's represented in the post title?  Oh well.  I'm sure someone will edit me if that's a rule or something. )

Just to recap, if you're not familiar with the rules of this review series, I'll cut and paste the guidelines from Matt's last post, in which he cut and pasted from Chris' previous post: (side note: our adult intramural sports team should be called the "Control C, Control V's")

1. It's an album that has influenced or affected one of us in some personal, emotional or culturally significant manner.
2. It as impacted the work of others - either contemporaries or future artists, and that influence is generally acknowledged by listeners/critics worldwide. It doesn't need to be a huge seller, either, although that's fine, too.
3. The album doesn't  have to be unknown to the listener, as we would like to think that could be a difficult since we surely know a little about a lot out there, and the listener could even have listened to the album sometime before.
4. It can't  be something the listener has ever had on heavy rotation or has a strong sense of the individual songs on the album- the album may exist in their world but it's more of haze than something concrete.

I don't know much about this album, so let's just visit our friends over at Wikipedia. I'm sure they have verified facts to share.  They say:

Nebraska is the sixth studio album, and the first acoustic album by Bruce Springsteen. The album was released on September 30, 1982, by Columbia Records.
Sparsely-recorded on a cassette-tape Portastudio, the tracks on Nebraska were originally intended as demos of songs to be recorded with the E Street Band. However, Springsteen ultimately decided to release the demos himself. Nebraska remains one of the most highly regarded albums in his catalogue. The songs on Nebraska both deal with ordinary, blue collar characters who face a challenge or a turning point in their lives, but also outsiders, criminals and mass murderers, who have little hope for the future - or no future at all, as in the title track, where the main character is sentenced to death in the electric chair. Unlike his previous albums, very little salvation and grace is present within the songs. The album's uncompromising sound and mood, combined with its dark lyrical content has been described by a music critic as "one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label."[2]

When I read "one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label", you know what I think?  I think they meant "this was a piece of crap that had no chance of becoming an album, except that Bruce Fucking Springsteen wrote it.  So we kind of had to release it.  Dammit."
Maybe I'm being too hard on the album before even listening to it. That hardly seems fair, and I apologize.  So I'll just pop my pirated copy into the ol'  MP3-o-tronic machine, and give this a whirl.  Ready? Here goes.

TRACK 1:  The aptly titled "Nebraska"

0:00  Ok, we have some harmonica, with some mellow guitar behind it.  Holy shit.  Is this a Bob Dylan cover??  
0:31  The Boss' distinctive voice comes in.  Definitely not a Dylan cover.  If this was recorded on a Portastudio, then it was the nicest gold-plated flagship model of Portastudio ever. The production and the recording is really nice.  The guitar sounds amazing, Bruce's vocals are bare, and they sound incredible. The harmonica, oddly enough, sounds like a harmonica.  God damn it.  Now I want to scrap my recording rig and buy a Portastudio.
1:05   Isn't Springsteen from Jersey? What's with the southern twang?  I've been to Lincoln, Mr. Springsteen.  They do NOT talk like that there.  They talk about football. 
2:12  Well...that took a dark lyrical turn.  Apparently the narrator murdered everything in his path, and doesn't regret it.  The jury finds him guilty, so he gets the electric chair.  Kudos for the contrast between the pleasant melody and the "dark as Aunt Mavis' Coffee" lyrics.  (Note to self: check to see if they even have the death penalty in Nebraska)
3:11 Harmonica solo bridge!
3:38 "Why'd ya do it, Mister?  Why??"  "I'm just bad, that's why. Deuces!" (poses for electric chair selfie)
3:54  Harmonica outro!

Shit.  I didn't hate that nearly as much as I thought I would. I actually liked it. I'm going to have to go erase all that stuff I typed up above where I mocked this album before listening to it. I kind of feel like a jerk. I hope that the rest of the album is terrible, so I can justify my prejudice.

Song Verdict:  B

TRACK 2: Yes! I mean NO! It's a terrible honky tonk intro! Vindication! I must press "stop".

 I'm going to take a break, and listen to that title track again so that awful honky tonk doesn't ruin it.  Then I'm going to bed, where I will lie awake for hours and contemplate my actual appreciation for that title track.  What does this mean?  Am I a Springsteen fan now?  Are my beloved Riot Grrl albums going to mock me as a "corporate sell-out"?  Ugh. I hate Chris.

I had horrible dreams about Bruce Springsteen murdering people in Nebraska while driving a pink Cadillac. He got away with it, because he drove 800 miles without seeing a cop. Ok. Let's continue.

TRACK 2: "Atlantic City"

Wait!  Where's the honky-tonk intro?  Either that was a terrible dream, or the MP3-o-tronic was on "random play". Let's hope it's the former. I'd hate for that intro to rear its ugly head later.

0:00  The acoustic guitar takes the forefront on the opening, and Bruce starts singing immediately.  Thanks for putting the harmonica in your pocket, Bruce. I'm digging this one so far.  Lyrically, chicken men are getting blown up in Philly, and there's gonna be a "rumble".  I'm getting a social-awareness vibe here. And for some reason, I like it. "Everything dies baby, and that's a fact".  Was Springsteen in desperate need of a hug during the recording of this album?
0:30  Background vocals with heavy reverb. They make me sad. I'm sure that's the intent.
0:55  God damn it.  Four measures of harmonica.
1:03  Working man theme, getting a job, trying to save money. So Springsteen.
1:58  This bridge is amazing.  Mandolin in the background.  Nice touch.  The production is again amazing.  I really REALLY gotta get myself one of those Portastudios.
2:27  Slowing things down.  Tempo change?  Right on.  The ol' "repeat the chorus build up strip down" outro trick. Well played, Mr. Springsteen.  Well played.

I liked that one even more than the first one.  Despite the race-riot/gambling addiction mixed messages.  I can't believe it.  So far, this album is good.  Let's hope there are some real stinkers coming up.

Song Verdict: B+

Track 3: "Mansion on the Hill"

0:00 More harmonica!  Is this the title track again? It is eerily similar so far.
0:35 Edge of town? Factories? Unattainable mansions on the hill?  Please go on, Bruce.  Tell me more.
1:32  Uh oh.  His dad is taking him on a ride at night.  Given the previous lyrical content, there's no way this ends well for anyone.  
2:05  Harmonica solo bridge!
2:35 "Urban music playing".  What exactly is urban music in 1982?  Grandmaster Flash? The Sugarhill Gang? I don't think anyone working in a factory or a mill or in a cornfield in 1982 in the midwest listened to Grandmaster Flash.
3:36  Harmonica outro.  Come on! 

I think this song was the demo for the title track, before Bruce's bad day that caused him to write murder lyrics.  It's about poor people gazing longingly at the mansion on the hill?  Appreciate what you have, because that's all you'll ever get?  Ok.  

Song Verdict: D+ (I could have gone C- here, but I'm trying to justify my prejudiced ass-holery from earlier) 

Track 4: "Johnny 99"

0:00  There's a shrieking woman trapped in the trunk!
0:16  There it is. The auto plant closed. Ralph can't get a job.  
0:30  The honky-tonk guitar is getting some crescendo here.  Increased heartland fervor from The Boss.  
0:50  Johnny is drunk and waving his gun around! He's four five seconds from wildin'!  Sucker punched by an off-duty cop.  Game over, Son.  
1:30  Just when you thought it was taking a break for a track, the harmonica busts back in!
2:30  Time to feel sorry for Johnny 99.  He's losing his house.  Bruce predicts the housing crisis, 32 years early! Johnny 99 blames his crimes on poverty.  He says he's better off dead.  I think Johnny 99 is kind of a whining bitch. 
3:09.  Harmonica outro.  Again. 

Do you know what's better than this song?
Johnny 99 should be almost 20 times better than me, but he's not.

Song Verdict: D+

Track 5: "Highway Patrolman"

0:00  Nice guitar sound.  Again, Bruce's vocals sound raw and amazing.  Despite him using them to give what amounts to a Match.com profile of a law enforcement officer.
0:45  The cop has a bad seed brother!  He's up to no good! But the cop looks the other way, because nepotism. 
1:17  I'll be honest. I like this chorus. I don't want to, but I do. There's some weird sharing of some girl named Maria going on, which seems odd. 
2:00  Bad Seed brother joins the army in 1965. The cop starts a farm and marries the brother's girlfriend. There's no way this ends up good for anyone.
2:40  The harmonica has been relegated to the background on this track, and production-wise, it's effective and haunting.  
3:18  Here it comes. The bad news phone call. The brother's up to no good again.
4:36  Car chase! Action! Uh oh! Sounds like the bad seed brother had a Thelma and Louise moment, or he escaped to Canada.  It's not clear.

Song Verdict:   C  (it's a D song saved by a B chorus)

Track 6:  "State Trooper"  

0:00 I'm really liking this dark intro.  Muted guitar, and hushed vocals. The vocals have some noticeable delay and reverb on them, which is a change from the previous tracks, but it sounds amazing. I really REALLY gotta get one of those Portastudios.
1:32  Apparently this song is about not wanting to get pulled over? And State Troopers get to marry hot chicks? Either way, this song is awesome so far.
2:25  Bruce Springsteen inexplicably shouts and it scares me. It's the sonic equivalent of one of those seemingly tranquil videos you watch on the internet and at the end the scary monster jumps out and screams and you shit yourself.  I mean, I personally didn't shit myself, but I have a friend who did.  A friend from Canada.
3:00 more shouting! This song cures hiccups.

I would love to hear what this song would have evolved into if it had ever graduated from "demo" state.  Wow.  Bonus points for keeping the harmonica in your pocket, Bruce.

Song Verdict:  A   

Track 7: "Used Cars"

0:00  More sparse guitar, background harmonica, bare vocals.  Just like most of the other songs on the album.
1:10  Is that a fucking xylophone??
1:22  "Brand new used car" is an excellent lyric.
1:45  Blue collar working man middle class family blah blah
2:33  The harmonica, not content to stay in the back, runs to the front of the stage.  Or pushes it's fader up on the mixing deck.  I'm starting to suspect that the harmonica is the diva in this band.

Meh.  Meh minus.

Song Verdict:  C  I neither loved or hated this song.  If this song was a restaurant, it would be Chilli's.

Track 8: "Open All Night"

0:00 Aaaaaannndddd the horrible honky-tonk intro finally crashes the sad bastard party.  Seriously, this song is like that jock in high school that gets all hooped up on whippets and red bull and then he crashes the serious goth party the drama kids are having.  "Shut up, Chet!  We're trying to listen to Morrisey here! Your unfocused energy is ruining our choreographed crying!"
0:15  What. The. Fuck.  Is this just a rip-off of "Greased Lightning"?  Mr. Springsteen, please stop vocally masturbating about your car.  
1:31  What?  What are you saying??  Why are the vocals suddenly incomprehensible?  The production on this track sounds exactly like it was recorded on a Portastudio.  I no longer wish to purchase one.
2:58  Chris owes me three minutes of my life back.

Song Verdict:  F-

Track 9: "My Father's House"

0:00 No way this track can be as bad as the last one.  It's trying to, but it's not quite there.  We have the now familiar acoustic guitar with the fairly subdued vocals taking the forefront.  A bit reverb on the vocal track.  It's not as effective here as the dry vocals would have been.  
0:30  Ok, I'm getting a serious gospel vibe here.  Maybe it's the "daaaarrrrrrkneesss falls" vocal roll.  Very un-Springsteen, so bonus points are awarded.
1:30  I like the lyrical theme.  It's a scared kid running home through the woods at night, terrified of the boogie man/devil behind him, running to the comfort of his father's house.  This is much more interesting than the factory worker trying to buy a big house, or getting all murderous on some folks in Lincoln.
2:15  Diva Harmonica pops up for a few measures, just to be a dick and try to ruin this interesting song.
3:30  Ok, sadness.  Bruce Springsteen was sad as fuck in 1982.  The song tells a story, and (SPOILER ALERT!) it doesn't end well.  

I liked this one a lot.  Maybe it got a boost by the utter disdain I felt for the previous track.  

Song Verdict:  B+

Track 10:  "Reason to Believe"

0:00  Diva Harmonica kicks things off.  
0:30  We have a honky tonk guitar threatening to come out!  It's back there, Bruce is doing his best to hold it back!  
1:30  What is that backing instrument?  A harpsichord?  I like this song and have no idea why.  Maybe I've just been pummeled into submission for the last 10 tracks.  
2:03  I think Springsteen just lit a cigarette.  IN. THE. VOCAL. BOOTH.  On the microphone.  That is awesome!  Even more awesome is that the engineer/producer didn't edit that out.  Yes.  That makes the song even more amazing.  You win, anonymous sound engineer!
3:20  What the hell?  Hopeful lyrics?  Come on Bruce!  Did the album test poorly with focus groups, so you threw in a happier ending?  It's ok. Your lighter click and subsequent inhale on the vocal mic gives you license to do whatever the fuck you want.  Carry on.

I liked this one.  Because music.  I think The Boss finally got that hug he'd been longing for.

Song Verdict: A


This wasn't nearly as awful as I'd anticipated.  I have a newfound appreciation for Bruce Springsteen's lyrical prowess.  That dude can turn a phrase.  I also learned a few things about myself:

1) I don't hate drum-free music as much as I thought I did.
2) I really fucking hate the harmonica.

(Politically Correct Disclaimer)  I can see how a lot of people would enjoy this album, and I can see how it was a turning point for Springsteen's career.  If he can release a demo tape, and it gets hailed as a "classic", then he must be doing something right.  It's easy to connect the dots from "Nebraska" to "Born in the USA", which I listened to quite a bit when I was a kid.  Because it was all over the radio.     I couldn't escape it.  They both have that blue-collar working-man vibe.  "Nebraska" is like "Born in the USA"'s sad little brother, who is equally talented, yet disproportionately more pessimistic.  Plus, his drummer quit.  I'm glad Chris suggested this album for me to review (despite my repeated vitriol towards him). I can't say that it'll be on my heavy rotation list any time soon, but I feel that I've filled a gaping hole in my musical knowledge.  At the very least I can pull this knowledge out at parties to impress people.  "Hey, have you heard Springsteen's "Nebraska"?  It's sooooo dark!  You gonna eat the last of that spinach dip? Thanks!"

So far, I think Matt, Chris, and I have all given our assigned albums a "B" grade.  Maybe we should rename this series "What The B Is Wrong With You?"  The three of us have widely differing musical tastes, so it will be interesting to see how long after this review it takes for them to fire me.

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom! 




Chris said...

Let me congratulate you on finishing the damn article, Witmer. I put my reputation on the line for you!

I actually meant for you to review Bruce Hornsby's "Spirit Trail".


Unknown said...

Does "Spirit Tail" have harmonica in it?

John Hamilton, author said...

Thanks for that honest, life-afirming, scathing, never-pandering, hilarity-filled account of Mr. Boss' "Nebraska." I've been on the fence on that one for a long time. Now I feel confident I can purchase it and get my money's worth, or at least a solid B listening experience.

I look forward to Mr. Scott's review of "Spirit Trail."

Matt said...

Bruce Hornsby! Now we're talking...I was a pretty big Rangehead in college. Followed them around for an entire summer selling vegan quesadillas in the parking lot before shows.

I'm the resident Springsteen fanboy and I can only assume Chris pushed this album on you because otherwise I was going to pick one for him. It was entertaining to hear your review from the point of view of someone that isn't really a fan.

'Nebraska' is without a doubt one of my favorite Springsteen albums (although I do really love the sad bastard guy and a guitar stuff) and I find it's best enjoyed at 3am when you're finishing off a 750 of bourbon.

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