Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Songs for the New Depression Revisited

And speaking as we were on Monday of Bruce Springsteen -- from the December 1982 issue of the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review, please enjoy -- if that's the word -- my review of Nebraska.

Slightly edited for style (don't ask) but otherwise exactly as it appeared at the time.

When times get tough, someone once observed, entertainment gets sloppy, but in the case of Bruce Springsteen, the once and future Bard of Asbury Park, New Jersey, we may have to amend that; when times get tough, entertainment gets grim. At least that's one implication to be derived from Nebraska, Springsteen's new all-acoustic -- dare I say it? -- folk music album. Another is that the record business is in even worse shape than I thought. Since the production costs of what sounds like the bleakest record of the year must have been next to nothing (Springsteen recorded it at home on a four-track Teac cassette deck), you might think Columbia would give us a break and sell it at a really reduced price -- like about two bucks. No such luck.

That's a pretty cynical thing to say about a Bruce Springsteen album, Springsteen being the one mainstream rock star who maintains a genuine give-and-take relationship with his audience, but I'm afraid Nebraska inspires cynicism. It sounds like it was written for critics rather than people. I'm not suggesting a sellout; in a lot of ways a release like this is a very gutsy career move, and I don't doubt that the ten songs on it are as sincerely, deeply felt as anything Springsteen has ever done. In some ways, actually, it's weirdly appropriate that he should mutate, however briefly, into a latter-day Woody Guthrie. CBS originally signed him as a folk singer, things are pretty depressing out there, and somebody's got to do it, I suppose. It's just that most of Nebraska is, well, boring.

I can't fault the stories Springsteen tells here. He seems to have aimed for a sort of contemporary working-class, factory-town equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath, and mostly he's succeeded. As vignettes they're wonderful; one in particular -- "Highway Patrolman" -- is going to make a heck of a movie someday. But God. The tunes are less than minimalist, the tempos are uniformly dirgelike, and hardly a ray of sunlight breaks through the overpowering miasma of fatalism and gloom. The effect is to trivialize the stories. It's impossible to care about the lives of the people being chronicled when the music is so resolutely leaden.

I suspect that this is not due so much to a lack of inspiration as it is to deliberate calculation. Springsteen has been headed in this direction for some time now. A lot of Darkness on the Edge of Town was all but unlistenable for the same reasons, and in places The River was even worse, the stark dramas inflated to operatic pretentious and unintentional self-parody. Nebraska, with its self-conscious underproduction, achieves the same sad result from the opposite direction. Springsteen must know better -- just listen to the material he gives away to other artists. Heck, his "Out of Work," on the recent Gary U.S. Bonds album, says far more about blue-collar aspirations than anything on Nebraska, and it's also tuneful, danceable and fun.

But Springsteen seems to think that fun is beneath him now. As much as it pains me to say it, I think what we have here is a classic case of a "primitive" artist corrupted by "intellectuals" (well, ex-rock writers, like his producer Jon Landau and official biographer Dave Marsh). How else to explain Springsteen's apparent compulsion to make the Big Statement every time out, the references to film directors -- here it's Terence Malick (Badlands) in the title song -- and the hectoring preachiness of so much of his recent output? Nebraska, its offhand simplicity notwithstanding, is an ambitious work, and, given the thoroughly decadent state of contemporary pop music, it merits respect if only because it aims high. But the fact is, it misses -- by a big margin -- and the reasons suggest that its author has worked himself into what may be an artistic cul-de-sac. Let's hope I'm wrong. -- Steve Simels

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Nebraska. Bruce Springsteen (vocals, guitar, harmonica).

A review that holds up pretty well, I think.

Although I've mellowed a bit on Darkness since then. I'm still not crazy about it, but the obviously anthemic songs (plus "Candy's Room," which I've always thought of as Bruce channeling The Yardbirds) are great enough that I can sort of ignore the (IMHO) lame West Coast-style production.

I'm also tickled by my prediction about "Highway Patrolman," which of course Sean Penn filmed as The Indian Runner in 1991


steve simels said...

I should add that this one ISN'T in that recently discovered online archive of the magazine, but apparently I transcribed it from some source earlier in the decade. I think it would be neat to have an entire section in the rumored book of my greatest hits collecting all the stuff I wrote about Bruce over the years.

Blue Ash Fan said...

You appear to have been on self-parody watch in the early '80s.

Never quite understood your antipathy toward Darkness. It's still my favorite Bruce LP.

steve simels said...

BORN TO RUN was pretty much the rock album of my dreams, so anything was gonna let me down by comparison. As I said, though, the good songs on DARKNESS are great and more or less unarguable.

I still think the production sucks, however. Landau has always been a shitty producer -- and if you doubt it, listen to how he botched the MC5.

Anonymous said...

the money quote: "It sounds like it was written for critics rather than people."

Bonus points for calling out Marsh and Landau. Read "Mansion on the Hill" when you get the chance. Fantastic book.

Blue Ash Fan said...

I always liked the production on Darkness. I don't have your experience actually recording music, so can you explain what is so objectionable about the production? I'm genuinely curious.

steve simels said...

BAF...hmm...that may be a whole essay in itself. But of course we're getting into "dancing about archichetecture" territory. Obviously, as subjective you can possibly get.

I'm gonna think about that.And BTW, It's got nothing to do with actually having done work in the studio -- it's strictly a question of what sounds good to you as a listener. Or as (yikes) Dave Marsh famously said -- where is it written than you have to know anything about music to listen to records.

Treademark Dave said...

My problem with "Darkness" has always been he left the three best songs he had off of it - "Fever," "Fire" and "Because the Night". Saw him in SF in December 78 doing those three and they were arguably the fiery center of his entire performance.

Blue Ash Fan said...

OK. Then whats sounds off to you re: the production?

And, don't you think that something that sounded like E Street Shuffle or Born To Run would've sounded ridiculously dated in 1978?