Springsteen's Nebraska
February 24, 2006 11:43 AM   Subscribe

I really like Springsteen's Nebraska. I've never been able to put my finger on why I like it so much and why it moves me: maybe it is the bare bones orchestration. The lyrical narratives. The dusty simplicity of it. But I like it a lot. What label should that sound be called? What else is like Nebraska that I should try out?

Yes, I do have Ghost of Tom Joad and his newest one, Devils + Dust, which are supposed be Nebraska-esque. But they don't anything for me like Nebraska does.

I would also be interested in people trying to help me put my finger on why I like it so much.
posted by dios to Religion & Philosophy (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I hear Kansas is an awful lot like Nebraska.
posted by Captain_Tenille at 11:44 AM on February 24, 2006

Country music, dude. The older the better.
posted by logovisual at 11:47 AM on February 24, 2006

You should check out Ethan Daniel Davidson if you like Nebraska-era Springsteen.
posted by JekPorkins at 11:58 AM on February 24, 2006

Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads. It is the direct inspiration of Nebraska, I believe.
posted by LarryC at 12:03 PM on February 24, 2006

Quick answer: you could try Pandora via the Music Genome Project - it might be able to isolate other songs similar to it. It won't help you understand the lyrical narratives any better, but it's an interesting site nonetheless.

Maybe someone's written a good paper about why that particular album is popular...
posted by rmm at 12:03 PM on February 24, 2006

Preacher Boy, "Demanding to Be Next" is pretty good. Dusty, barebones, and just him + guitar.

Also maybe Iron & Wine would fit the genre too? I've only started listening, though, so my jury is still out.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:07 PM on February 24, 2006

Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session. Mostly haunting acoustic covers of western standards and unexpected rock ballads, all recorded in an empty church with just enough reverb to invoke the presence of something almost divine.
posted by grabbingsand at 12:14 PM on February 24, 2006

I'm not sure what label I'd give it. It's essentially the demo tape of a (very talented) singer/songwriter.

Perhaps you enjoy the combination of lo-fi production values and story-based songwriting that makes it feel more intimate than most albums.

If that's the case, I'd suggest tuning into American Routes for a few shows, and seeing if anything tickles your fancy.
posted by I Love Tacos at 12:14 PM on February 24, 2006

There might be a technical consideration I suppose.

From memory, Springsteen recorded it on a TEAC PortaStudio (a home-recording device about the size of a VCR, which recorded to regular cassette tape) and there was some kind of double-take when he presented the label with what they thought were demos, but he thought could be a raw, but finished, recording.

There was some quite tricky work with the transfer and mastering. The engineer did something unusual with the levels.

So it sounds fundamentally different to most commercial recordings.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:19 PM on February 24, 2006

Great Lake Swimmers
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2006

interestingly enough, "Born in the USA" was created as a raw, acoustic anti-war song, originally to be included in the "Nebraska" LP (under a different title: "Vietnam")

and when Springtseen made the "Born in the USA" album, he initially considered whether to put the song in its original, acoustic version. but it would have changed the tone of the entire album, so he went for the electric version (that was promptly mistook, either by the clueless or by those in bad faith*, of course, for some kind of gung-ho patriotic anthem)

* Reagan's GOP wanted it as an election theme song

and, what AmbroseChapel said -- it sounds different because it is different -- technically, too.
posted by matteo at 12:28 PM on February 24, 2006

Some people call it Americana....
Try Josh Ritter.
posted by cushie at 12:30 PM on February 24, 2006

Rounder Records has put out a lot of roots and early country stuff you'd probably like.
posted by miss tea at 12:36 PM on February 24, 2006

I'm with you, it's a great album. You might try March 16-20, 1992 by Uncle Tupelo, an album and a band obviously influenced by Nebraska. No Depression is also kind of Nebraska-esque, but not quite as much. Trace, the first Son Volt album is also very reminiscent in some ways.

As a side note, I have to say that my love for Springsteen stems from that album. I was really disappointed to read in Eric Alterman's book on Springsteen that most of his heavy fans don't think that highly of the record.
posted by OmieWise at 12:42 PM on February 24, 2006

The reason that album speaks to me is because I get lost in the characters. When I listen to Johnny '99 I become him. Here are some albums that I also get lost in the characters:

Together Alone by Crowded House
Peter Gabriel - Security, no title (Melting face)
Freedy Johnston - Blue Days Black Nights
Pink Floyd - The Final Cut
Tori Amos - Little earthquakes, Under the pink
posted by any major dude at 1:01 PM on February 24, 2006

Here's a wild fact: Both Bruce Springsteen and Woodie Guthrie were inspired to write their "okie" songs by the movie "Grapes of Wrath," based on the book by John Steinbeck.
Not the book itself. Not real life experience. But a Hollywood movie. And a movie based on a book whose version of reality has been recently called into question. ("For a start, dust storms in the Thirties affected very little of the farming land of Oklahoma...")
Both Springsteen and Guthrie (a New York actor, who more or less stumbled into his folk-singer persona) are a couple of phonies. But what's great about America is that even our phonies produce magnificent works art -- including patriotic anthems like "This Land is Your Land" and "Born in the U.S.A." (both versions of which are great).
"Nebraska" a marvelous piece of bogosity, with Bruce delivering his best, grunting, workin' man vocals, tellin' stories about them down-and-outers who've missed out on the American dream -- and how vacant and spiritually parched all that flat country is out there in the middle of America. It is a slick piece of B.S. on a par with Bob Dylan's multiple assumed "common man" personas. But -- as I said -- still mighty good.
posted by Faze at 1:13 PM on February 24, 2006

You could go to Pandora, put in something from Nebraska (say, "Highway Patrolman") as a seed for the songs they'll play you over streaming radio, and see what comes out.
posted by weston at 1:20 PM on February 24, 2006

I too love Nebraska for its desolate and disturbing take on American idioms. I think the best companion piece would be Bonnie "Prince" Billie's I See a Darkness. It has the same foreboding atmosphere. The singer, Will Oldham, is really great in general and records under a variety of names.
posted by Falconetti at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2006

I really have nothing useful to add, just that 'Nebraska' changed the direction of my musical tastes more than and album before or since.

p.s. you HAVE to hear it on vinyl, if you haven't already, it's like the last piece of the puzzle, sonically.

p.p.s. i believe 'I'm on Fire' was also originally from the 'Nebraska' sessions, IIRC

p.p.p.s 'Ghost of Tom Joad' is very nearly as good, if anyone here hasn't checked it out
posted by Cosine at 1:55 PM on February 24, 2006

Not that there is anything wrong with hearing it on cd or whatever, don't want to sound strident
posted by Cosine at 1:57 PM on February 24, 2006

I'm with any major dude. Nebraska convinced me that if Springsteen hadn't been a musician, he would have been a great novelist or short story writer. At his best, he manages to encapsulate a whole life experience in the space of a three minute song.

The song "Racing in the Streets" from "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is in this same vein. Easily as evocative as anything you'd find in a whole stack of New Yorkers.
posted by hwestiii at 2:24 PM on February 24, 2006

I think the best companion piece would be Bonnie "Prince" Billie's I See a Darkness.

I second that recommendation. Master and Everyone is another excellent Bonnie album. I love the song Hard Life.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:26 PM on February 24, 2006

Wow, I'm surprised at the recommendations for Bonny Prince Billy. I like both of the albums mentioned here quite a bit, but I would never ever think to compare them in any way with Nebraska.
posted by OmieWise at 2:35 PM on February 24, 2006

Well, my comment was meant as more of a general endorsement of the albums than it was a comparison with Nebraska. I don't know Nebraska that well. Sorry.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:58 PM on February 24, 2006

Faze, perhaps that's why its "art" (in the sense of artifice) and not "autobiography".

Also Woodie Guthrie was apparently phony enough to leave behind enough lyrics to fill at least two albums worth of other people's music.
posted by hwestiii at 2:58 PM on February 24, 2006

I'll second the Cowboy Junkies suggestion, and also recommend that you check out some Patty Griffin.
posted by BobFrapples at 3:01 PM on February 24, 2006

I think I missed something there hwestiii, Woodie is a "phony"? Howso?
posted by Cosine at 3:07 PM on February 24, 2006

Cosine, see comment by Faze posted at 1:13 PM PST.
posted by hwestiii at 3:09 PM on February 24, 2006

Most of Steve Earle's stuff has that same novel-esque, become the character feel. His voice is different from Springsteen's (more nasal) and some of his work is tainted by too-poppy production during his Nashville sell-out days, but he is another of those songwriters that can rip your guts out in 3 minutes. And he's lived a fairly rough life (addictions and prison), so his work has the ring of authenticity.

The first time I listened all the way through Nebraska, I cried. Haven't been able to listen to it ever again.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:11 PM on February 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Faze is talking out of his ass. Guthrie a "phony," a "New York actor"? What the hell? Why not add "a transvestite astronaut juggler? Read Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life. Or anything, really.

And if anything, Nebraska is about the spirituality of barren places and circumstances. It's the first Bruce I really liked, having never warmed to the bombast & glockenspiel, and often muddy production, of his prior stuff. Not only is it great writing but it's one of those moments when an artist transcends himself and steps up to take his place in the pantheon.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 4:05 PM on February 24, 2006

You might be interested in is the Nebraska tribute record that came out in 2000. Not all of the tracks are stellar, but there are some inspired ones (Dar Williams doing "Highway Patrolman"comes to mind.) And I second OmieWise's Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt recommendations -- Trace is one of my favoritest records ever.
posted by harkin banks at 4:21 PM on February 24, 2006

James McMurtry and Ted Hawkins may be of assistance to you.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 5:03 PM on February 24, 2006

2 earlier songs really remind me of the raw sadness of Nebraska and both by singers who could also go big-production and soulless: Mystery Train by Elvis Presley and Lonely Town by Ricky Nelson.
posted by eve harrington at 6:25 PM on February 24, 2006

i'll third the cowboy junkies. good stuff.
posted by brandz at 7:13 PM on February 24, 2006

It's almost too obvious to mention, but: Johnny Cash. Specifically, the American Recordings series. He even did a cover of the Will Oldham song mentioned above with Oldham singing backup.
posted by gwint at 7:25 PM on February 24, 2006

Joni Mitchell's Hejira.
posted by mykescipark at 8:09 PM on February 24, 2006

Neil Young's Tonight's The Night is kind of a companion piece to Nebraska for me, although it is very much a rock album. Your best bet would be to go into the past; check out traditional muder ballads, old country music, old folk.

I'll seventh the Will Oldham, Iron & Wine, and Cowboy Junkies; austere, haunting, story-songs. The Handsome Family's stuff may be worth a listen too, but most of their songs may be too humorous and/or twangy for what you're looking for. Some John Prine, (Smog), and Richard Buckner may turn your crank too.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:10 PM on February 24, 2006

Strong fourth for the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions CD. Amazing, eerie, gripping, beautiful stuff. And Will Oldham has a number of records that fit the stripped-down-Americana description perfectly; "There Is No One What Will Take Care of You," recorded under the "Palace Brothers" name, is great, but his most achingly beautiful record by far is "Days in the Wake," filled with gorgeous, spare and heartwrenching songs of longing and hope. Brilliant music.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 PM on February 24, 2006

OmieWise is right on the mark. Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt are Springsteen's kissing cousins. Jay Farrar is a terribly underappreciated musical genius. "Moonshiner" on March 16-20, 1992 is an amazing song. I once heard a version of the traditional song recorded by the Clancy Brothers. When I perceived how Farrar had subtly tweaked the lyrics and orchestration to draw out the desperation at the core of a traditional folk tune, I was blown away.

I'd also recommend you check out Alejandro Escovedo and Calexico. Neither have precisely the muted gravity that makes Nebraska such a great album, but the narrative impulse in many of their songs will put you in mind of Springsteen at his best.
posted by felix betachat at 2:45 AM on February 25, 2006

Is nobody mentioning The Basement Tapes because it's too obvious?
posted by allen.spaulding at 4:45 AM on February 25, 2006

The Cowboy Junkies even covered State Trooper on their first album.
posted by hootch at 9:40 AM on February 25, 2006

Freedy Johnston -- This Perfect World
Richard & Linda Thompson -- Shoot Out the Lights
posted by neuron at 11:46 PM on February 25, 2006

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