30 Years Ago: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ Album Released
When Bruce Springsteen started recording a batch of new songs to a four-track tape machine in his New Jersey bedroom in January 1982, he wasnât planning to release an album. The acoustic demos were to be used as guidelines for the E Street Band, who would bring their epic heft to the two dozen or so songs Springsteen had recently written. But something happened along the way to Springsteenâs sixth album: The more he listened to the bare, stark songs on the cassette he carried around, the more he thought this was how they were supposed to sound.
The music (mostly recorded on acoustic guitar, harmonica and organ) certainly fit the mood of the lyrics. Unlike his previous albums â especially the one that preceded âNebraska,â 1980âs âThe Riverâ â the new songs werenât hopeful fist-pumping sing-alongs. In fact, they were downright desolate. From the opening title tune (based on the true story of a pair of teens who murdered 11 people during a week-long killing spree in 1958) to the closing âReason to Believeâ (not as optimistic as its title lets on), âNebraskaâ is a 40-minute bum trip through Americaâs badlands.
There are tales of fateful last chances (âAtlantic Cityâ), haunted wayward brothers (âHighway Patrolmanâ) and blue-collar workers pushed to their breaking points (âJohnny 99â). âOpen All Night,â the albumâs only song to feature an electric guitar, is also the LPâs only song to stray from the core themes of futility and despair.
Surprisingly, the album was a hit when it was released on Sept. 30, 1982. It reached No. 3 and has become one of the decadeâs essential recordings. Over the years, Springsteen has reworked several of the songs in concert with the E Street Band, finally giving them the full-group treatment he originally intended. And a few of the leftover cuts â including the drastically different and downcast versions of âBorn in the U.S.A.â and âDownbound Trainâ â ended up on his next album, 1984âs âBorn in the U.S.A.â
âNebraskaâ remains one of the best folk albums of the past 30 years. Itâs rooted in tradition, but itâs also a crucial leap forward for Springsteen, who sharpened his narrative skills here and found an America that wasnât an open-armed invitation to a land of hope and dreams. Sometimes itâs a very bad place populated by very bad people whoâve made some very bad decisions.
Watch Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’ Video