“Sea Change” is a series that discusses album or albums in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style.
Two years after his double-album The River and two years before the hard rock, 80s pop Born In The USA, Springsteen recorded a series of demos on a four-track cassette recorder. Later that year, these demos were released as his 1982 album Nebraska. While many musicians go from acoustic to electric, such as Bob Dylan, Springsteen did exactly the opposite; he went from the rock n’ roll that made him famous to a stripped-down sound that puts more focus on his voice and lyrics.
Even from the beginning of his recording career, Springsteen’s songs have focused around the average blue collar worker, the lower classes, or his own life. The best example of these early gritty songs is his eight-minute epic “Jungleland,” which describes the events of various back alleys and lower class neighborhoods.
While “Jungleland,” the closing track on Born to Run, deals with some fairly depressing and dark ideas, Darkness On the Edge of Town and The River, his following two albums, proceeded to examine both the lives of city teenagers and working class adults. Darkness seems like Born to Run 2; The River, a grab bag of songs. While there are tracks on the record that are much more upbeat and rocking (“Hungry Heart,” “Cadillac Ranch,” and “Crush On You”), The River includes some of Springsteen’s darker and more hopeless pieces: “Stolen Car” and “Wreck On The Highway.” In both of these latter songs, the listener is left with no clear resolution to the stories in the song and we are left with an image of people living in a hopeless and lonely world.
On Nebraska, Springsteen dedicates an entire album to these characters; they are working class people with uncertain futures or no future at all. The songs are brutally honest and vulnerable, giving us an insight into the psyche of various groups of people who have been hurt and left stranded. These aren’t your typical lonesome songs, however, as Springsteen adds a much more intimate and darker feel to each piece and character.
The album begins with the song “Nebraska.” If you didn’t believe me before that this album is dark and depressing, listen to this title track and you’ll understand what I mean.
The song’s narrator is mass murderer Charles Starkweather who drives with his young girlfriend through Nebraska to kill more people. The song ends with Starkweather sitting in the electric chair, contemplating why he murdered, explaining that he had a lot of fun killing and that a “meanness in this world” drove him to crime. In the beginning of the song, we don’t know that we are in the shoes of a killer; we believe it’s just another Springsteen song about a girl dancing around and having fun. It’s not until a few lines later that we begin to see the darkness that surrounds the narrator, the song, and the album.
From here, the album keeps a consistent, melancholic and depressed mood.
Following “Nebraska” is the most popular song on the album, “Atlantic City.” Even though we typically associate Atlantic City with fun, boardwalks, and other delights, Springsteen sings of a man who has lost all of his money from gambling yet is still drawn back to Atlantic City, where riots are breaking out, nobody is a winner, and honest people become criminals.
Musically, though the song consists of a typical 80s guitar melody, Springsteen’s lyrics and vocals bring a much darker mood to the track.
Scattered throughout the records are songs that seem partially autobiographical: “My Father’s House,” “Used Cars,” and “Mansion On The Hill.” Here, we get a view into the narrator’s troubled childhood, a childhood filled with hopes and dreams that would never come true. In both “Used Cars” and “Mansion On The Hill,” the narrator sings of his father’s or his own ambition to live an upper class, luxurious life; however, they recognize that this situation is almost unreachable for them. In “Used Cars,” the only way to escape the working class life is the luck of the lottery while “Mansion On The Hill” is about someone whose life doesn’t change from childhood to adulthood.
“My Father’s Home,” the most powerful song on the record, illustrates Springsteen’s troubled past with his father. He sings of a dream where he goes to his old house and reunites with his estranged father. When he awakes, he finds that his father has gone from his old home and the narrator will never see him again.
Just as these three songs are interconnected through their autobiographical nature, several other songs are linked through similar themes or even copied lines. For example, “Open All Night” and “State Trooper” depict people desperately trying to reach their lovers as quickly as possible and being in a kind of highway hypnosis. In “Open All Night,” though we don’t know if the narrator makes it or not, we are given a glimmer of hope; in “State Trooper,” all hope appears to be lost.
Nebraska ends with “Reason To Believe,” which almost seems like Springsteen himself commenting on the world around him as well as the album itself. The narrator lists a series of events he sees: a man staring at a dead dog hoping he’ll come back to life, a groom abandoned at the altar, a baby being baptized and an old man dying, and a lover who never returns. At the end of each verse, Springsteen sings that even in times of hopelessness we still believe that our situation will improve, even when we know deep down that it won’t.
Two years after releasing Nebraska, Bruce rejoined the E Street Band to release Born In The U.S.A., a definitive album of the 1980s that consists of lighthearted romances and happy days. The album turned into a huge commercial success as Springsteen switched from his more vulnerable, darker material to family friendly and consumer friendly music.
Personally, I don’t pay much attention to Springsteen’s albums after Nebraska. For me, it’s in his earlier, grittier material that Springsteen shows his true lyrical and musical abilities with Nebraska being the best example of this.
Though the music has always been phenomenal on his early 70s to early 80s albums with the E Street Band, Springsteen’s lyrics are also something to be appreciated and studied, providing the listener with an insight into an urban environment that is both romantic and glorified but also hopeless and lonesome. While Nebraska is not the best album musically in his discography, it is most certainly the best lyrically and is worthy not only of several listens but also of study and analysis.
Thank you for reading this installment of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, questions, or comments, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: George LaBour