I have loved the almighty racket of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for as long as I can remember, but it’s the songs from 1982’s understated Nebraska that I go back to most often. Springsteen recorded these songs on a four-track cassette player, carrying the cassette with him for days at a time. He meant to record them later with a full band, but in the end decided that the stark, acoustic versions were stronger.
It is a bleak, brave work, offering up a host of desperate characters (mostly men) on the verge of self-discovery and crisis.
It would be hard to imagine repeating the shock Nebraska must have been to millions of fun-loving Springsteen fans, and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, on which he revisits this territory, might initially sound like more of the same. It’s only gradually that the biting lyrics and craftsmanship emerge from behind Springsteen’s easy drawl. If anything this album’s characters are more desperate, and at their best the songs are oblique and understated in a way that emphasizes the pain they contain.
One of the most haunting examples of this is Highway 29, a song whose power comes largely from what is left unsaid. It starts like a straightforward love story, telling of a meeting between a man (the narrator) and a woman. After she slips him her number, “my hand slipped up her skirt, and everything slipped my mind …” From here the song jumps to a botched bank robbery, and the two lovers fleeing south across the Mexican border: “I had a gun, you know the rest …” In fact, we know nothing substantial about these people, and the man too feels as if he is traveling through a dream landscape. He would like to believe that it’s the woman’s fault, but he knows this isn’t true: “I told myself it was all something in her / But as we drove I knew it was something in me / Something that had been coming for a long time / Something that was here with me now / On highway 29 …”
Ultimately the song hinges on this “something”, which remains unnamed, but whose presence we feel from time to time when we cannot understand our own actions.
The song ends on a note of resignation to this power so complete that it leaves nothing to say: “The wind was coming silent through the wind shield / All I could see was snow, sky and pines / I closed my eyes and I was runnin’ / I was runnin’ then I was flying …”