The first words we hear on Nebraska are, “I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirling her baton,” and for just a moment, we’re in classic Bruce land; any minute, it seems, the screen door will slam and she’ll dance like a vision to Roy Orbison. The feeling is short-lived. The next line: “Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died.” In an instant, Born to Run turns to ash as Bruce recasts his archetypes as murderous criminals.
This happens over and over again on Nebraska, from the factory-worker-turned-mass-shooter “Johnny 99” to “Highway Patrolman”‘s on-the-lamb Franky to the ambiguous guilt of “State Trooper.” In some ways, this is the logical extension of The River‘s ambivalence on the Springsteen dreamer, the worst-case scenario for all the flaws in the worldview of toxic individualism dissected by that album. It’s a dark album, uncompromisingly so, and its relentless bleakness is oppressive, all the more so because its characters are so identifiable as hopeless iterations of familiar faces from the past. So in some ways, it’s nothing new, just another step further down the path that Springsteen set out upon with Darkness at the Edge of Town.
But the album isn’t quite so simple as that. In fact, what’s remarkable about all this darkness is that despite its bleak mirroring of Bruce types and imagery, none of this reads as self-critique. While The River is the album of interiority and reflection (and the criticism that comes with that), Nebraska turns its gaze outward at the environment that pushes these characters toward oblivion. “They wanted to know why I did what I did,” concludes that album opener, and the answer this protagonist gives is, “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” And that’s the key. It’s not that the meanness is a justification for evil; it is the evil, at least the one worth engaging here. The characters’ actions are presented without judgement, as coolly as if Springsteen were a journalist. “Judge, don’t take my boy this way,” cries Johnny’s mother in “Johnny 99,” and it’s that sorrow, not that of Johnny’s victim, that the song fixates on. The one evaluative statement made in the entire album is on “Highway Patrolman,” when the narrator says that a “man [who] turns his back on his family… just ain’t no good,” and even there, we’re not in some The River situation where we’re meant to question a man’s individual urges for freedom at the expense of his family, even though there’s plenty of room for that in Franky’s “no good” ways; it’s a platitude his law-enforcement brother quotes to explain his choice to let Franky escape. The point isn’t to judge or critique the actions of these individuals; it’s to analyze why these actions occur, as if we’re observing natural phenomena.
A disembodied “they” figure heavily into the album. “They declared me unfit to live,” says the narrator on “Nebraska”; “Atlantic City” tells us that “they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night,” and “they closed down the auto plant,” begins “Johnny 99.” The River was an interrogation of the individual thoughts that led people toward self-destruction; Nebraska is obsessed with this “they,” the environment out of our characters’ control that exacerbates the consequences for this self-destruction and perhaps even causes it to begin with. That lack of control is painful on this album, and any time the characters aren’t committing crimes, it seems, they’re merely passive recipients in their own lives because there’s no other option. Things don’t happen for these characters; they happen to them. Or they don’t happen at all. When factories aren’t closing and courts aren’t decreeing, it’s the chasm that separates the lucky wealthy from the rest that’s most apparent: “Mansion on the Hill” finds its protagonists gazing longingly at the luxuries of their town’s affluent, and “Atlantic City” explains that “it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” The world bestows fortune and misfortune capriciously and unaccountably, and once it’s all divvied out, there’s little you can do to change it outside of radical acts of self-sabotage.
So it’s not surprising, then, that the characters shore up their hope on the whims of random providence. The desperate lovers of “Atlantic City” know that their only opportunity for change is a one-in-a-million shot at the big payout; “Used Cars”‘s speaker wearily hopes for the same in his lottery ticket. And right away, we’re back at Born to Run and its broken heroes on a last-chance power drive. It’s here, in this point, that the album’s refusal to judge its characters becomes essential, because if the album had at any time tipped its hand toward how we are supposed to feel about these characters, their final, desperate clutching at hope would have painted them as rubes on a fool’s errand. But within the context of this observational record, their hope is left on the characters’ terms, a profoundly ambiguous alternative to the radical violence of Johnny 99 that recontextualizes the quest of the Springsteen dreamer as something approaching the beautiful ellipsis of religion.
“Reason to Believe,” yet another Bruce Springsteen album-closing stunner, makes this recontextualization explicit as its narrator watches a variety of individuals hope for everything from marital bliss to the return of long-absent family to the resurrection of the dead. “Struck me as kinda funny,” the narrator says with exquisite ambivalence, and that’s as close to any sort of definitive statement on these actions as we get. Because, as the song insists again and again, “at the end of every hard day, people find some reason to believe.” Because this is faith and, by extension, the nature of the human spirit: despite long odds or even impossibility, we still try to make it work. Depending on your view of religious faith, that spirit is either going to seem foolish or profound, and that’s the brilliance of this ending and of the album as a whole. Crime, gambling, long drives, freedom, marriage–these are all acts of tenacious religious devotion, what defines us and our relationship toward the transcendent truths of our own nature.
Is that final summation cynical? Optimistic? That’s up to you. What isn’t left ambiguous, though, is that Nebraska is one of Bruce Springsteen’s foremost and excellent works.