I first heard "Nebraska" playing over the speakers in Chad's Records. And if you read my last column, detailing my discovery and adoration of Lou Reed's "Transformer," you already know that most of my musical knowledge comes from store owner Chad Bledsoe. But this record was being played by another person who worked there—though their identity escapes me after all these years.
A belated and gratuitous thank you to the guy who was playing this record, whoever you are.
"Nebraska" was Bruce Springsteen's sixth studio album after the release of his 1980 epic double album, "The River." But far from the grand arrangements and theatricality of that record, "Nebraska" felt self-contained and intimate on a level that he'd never attempted before. The stories here felt closer to his own heart, and that's saying something, given his penchant for laying bare the working-class motivations of blue-collar workers.
The songs had the feeling of raw nerves, of ragged emotions roiling just underneath the calm façade of any person you might see walking down the street. Springsteen was exposing the heart of working-class America and doing so with barely more than his voice and an acoustic guitar. But then again, that's really all he needed.
Within these 10 tracks, we get stories of serial killers ("Nebraska"), unintentional murderers ("Johnny 99") and the unbreakable bonds that exist between brothers ("Highway Patrolman"). So although the accompaniment may be minimal and even downright stark at times, the overarching themes that Springsteen is working with are anything but simple. Maybe it's because I have such a strong bond with my brother, but "Highway Patrolman" always came across as brutally honest and never failed to leave me exhausted and completely worn out.
But Springsteen was looking at more than familial ties and felonious individuals. Songs like "Used Cars" and "Mansion on the Hill" took a plain view toward the acceptance and hope of simple dreams—whether that dream is to own your own home or simply to be able to buy yourself a new car. These ideas may seem rote to some, but for the people inhabiting these songs, they represent the very nature of circumstance and the yearning for something better.
"Nebraska" was a statement about the communal nature of the American ethos. And the album's simplified execution and intimate narrative detours made the trek through its winding back roads and often-blunt desperation a harrowing trip.
But there is also a knowingness and hesitant acceptance about the encroaching darkness that Springsteen keeps (mostly) at bay by maintaining a slightly sardonic smile and a sense of black humor about the whole proceeding. He's not bitter per se about the situations in which he finds these people—that would really defeat the point of the songs—but he clearly understands the motivations and ideals of these individuals and can therefore place us directly beside them within each story.
And that's exactly where I found myself that day in Chad's Records, a brief observer to the trials and tribulations of "Nebraska" and its inhabitants. And though decades have passed since the release of this album, its honesty and musical relevance have only increased, given the ever-widening gulf between social and economic classes. Springsteen hoped to shed some light on the plight of the downtrodden and the working man, and by doing so, he gave us one of the most bracingly memorable albums of his career.
"Nebraska" is a masterpiece of understatement and traditional storytelling. And it informs and enlightens like the best folk albums of the '60s but has a momentum that will sweep you away before you realize you've waded out too far. This album floored me when I first heard it, and it continues to amaze and astound with each subsequent listen. It is a simple revelation and Springsteen's opus of heartfelt inclusivity.
The Boss changed things (including myself) with "Nebraska," and its like will never be heard again.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.