Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 solo album Nebraska has been called a folk album, and that’s true to an extent in both its acoustic setting and, on some of the material, in the construction of the songs. But folk songs in the traditional sense are in part defined by how they travel through culture, typically by being played in person for other people. Nebraska invites no such feeling of communion. These songs aren’t part of a shared language that people in a room might speak to each other, they are one-way transmissions from a distant, lonely place. But the signals that come through on Nebraska crackle with electricity—sometimes it’s just a hum, and sometimes it seems like a circuit is going to explode.
In early 1982, Bruce Springsteen was living in a rented house in Colts Neck, New Jersey, recuperating from a year-long tour following his 1980 double album The River. His band played 140 marathon shows and were on their way to becoming one of the biggest rock acts in the world. During this period, Springsteen tasked his guitar tech, Mike Batlan, with buying a simple tape recorder so that he could tinker with some new songs and arrangements without having to bother with renting studio time. Batlan picked up a Teac Tascam 144 Portastudio, a then-new device that was the first piece of equipment to use a standard cassette tape for multi-track recording. The new machine arrived in Springsteen’s life at the perfect moment, during what was arguably the most fruitful songwriting period in Springsteen’s long career, one that would produce enough material for two albums (1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born in the U.S.A.) with dozens of additional songs to spare. On it, he would craft what is still the most singular album in his catalog.
Nebraska remains an outlier for Springsteen, a record that sits uneasily in his discography. Instead of making an impact upon release, Nebraska has been accruing weight gradually over the last four decades, becoming a marker of its socioeconomic era as well as an early document of the later home-recording revolution. It stands alone partly because Springsteen didn’t tour behind it—his work is ultimately about his connection to his audience, and that connection is felt most intensely when he’s performing onstage—and partly because the record itself is kind of an accident, something that fell into place before Springsteen knew what to do with it. “I had no conscious political agenda or social theme,” he later wrote of this time in his autobiography, Born to Run. “I was after a feeling, a tone that felt like the world I’d known and still carried inside me.”
Springsteen’s initial burst of material in Colts Neck clustered around isolation and disillusionment. There were connections to his earlier work in these new songs—two tracks on The River, “Stolen Car” and “Wreck on the Highway,” conveyed a similar feeling of despair—but the new work was different. Springsteen seemed both emotionally closer to his characters but also less interested in judging them. These songs had no heroes and no villains, everyone in them was making their way with what they were given, every grim or brutal scene had its own context and its own internal logic.
Early in his career, Springsteen’s work thrived on personal instinct, but in isolation, it became more reliant on specific inputs. He’d transform ideas he discovered in books and films and the news into frameworks for songs: the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, which detailed the harsh lives of people living on the margins; Ron Kovick’s Born on the Fourth of July, in which a gung-ho soldier becomes deeply scarred by the actions of his government. At some point, he saw Terrence Malick’s Badlands on television, a film based on the 1957–58 killing spree of Charlie Starkweather. The Starkweather murders were meaningless, and the randomness of that violence and inability to explain it fit with the mood of Springsteen’s songwriting.
Once the new songs recorded on the Portastudio began to gel, Springsteen selected some of his favorites, ran his simple arrangements through a Gibson Echoplex unit to add some reverb and echo, and mixed them down to a boombox he had laying around the house. He sent the tape to his manager, Jon Landau, with handwritten notes on the songs and ideas for how they might find their way on to a new record. Springsteen’s letter to Landau, reproduced in his book of lyrics, Songs, suggests that the album that was emerging was mysterious even to its creator. “I got a lot of ideas but I'm not exactly sure of where I'm going,” he wrote. He didn’t quite understand what he had, but he did feel he was entering new territory with his work.
Springsteen carried around the cassette in his pocket as he tried to figure out what to do with his new collection of songs. The initial assumption was that his E Street compatriots would flesh them out. There were recording dates with the full band who tried to give the pieces life like they had so many other songs Springsteen had written on his own. And when that didn’t work, there were sessions of Springsteen alone, trying to capture the stark feel of the original tape in a professional studio with proper fidelity. Springsteen never could recapture the atmosphere that imbued the demos; eventually, the choice was made to put it out as-is.
The power of Nebraska’s whole comes from Springsteen’s blend of fiction and memoir—some songs are personal and intimate with details drawn from Springsteen’s own life, others are the stuff of novels and cinema. “Nebraska” was Springsteen's re-telling of the Starkweather saga, and it begins, as the film does, with a shot of a young girl twirling her baton outside her house. From the innocence of this image—boy meets girl in the heartland—the song moves quickly and seamlessly to the narrator’s description of the killing spree. The fact that we’re living in a world where these things can coexist in such proximity is terrifying, and it suggests that the symbols and structures that we think exist to protect us may, in the end, offer us nothing.
The album’s violence continues. “Johnny 99” describes an act of murder that is the product of blinding desperation; in “Highway Patrolman,” a cop protects his violent brother even though doing so goes against everything he believes. “Atlantic City,” the only song released as a single, is a masterpiece of withheld information, a story of an out-of-luck character who is about to perform an unnamed act that he hopes will rescue his life from oblivion. Springsteen never personally experienced these scenes, but he renders them with such care and detail, he puts the listener squarely in the center of them.
In contrast, “Used Cars,” “My Father’s House,” and “Mansion on the Hill” draw from Springsteen’s past, particularly his complicated relationship with his father. “Used Cars” and “Mansion on the Hill” are written as memories and “My Father’s House” is told as a dream. But all are permeated by a deep yearning for connection, a wish that the unexpressed could be finally be spoken, and that barriers erected over a lifetime could dissolve. In the world of this record, these are the small and quiet tragedies that can nudge you down a path leading to larger and more explosive ones.
On paper, this is Springsteen at his most novelistic, trying to get into the heads of murderers and corrupt cops, or diaristic, revisiting detailed scenes from his childhood. One writer even turned the songs’ narratives into a book of short stories. But the record’s most lasting power comes not from its words or melodies but from its sound. The atmosphere in the room and the grain of Springsteen’s processed voice scramble notions of a fixed time and place. To put on Nebraska and hear its world of echo is to enter a dream. As Bruce Springsteen songs go, these are very good ones, but their true meaning came out in the presentation.
Nebraska is above all a sonic experience, which explains why he could never get the songs right in a proper studio. “A lot of its content was in its style, in the treatment of it,” he said in an interview in 1984. “It needed that really kinda austere, echoey sound, just one guitar—one guy telling his story.”
The atmospheric processing on Nebraska, the vast majority of which was imparted by the Echoplex during the mixdown stage, is crucial to the album’s meaning. The slapback echo present on some of the songs conjure early rockabilly (the technique, which thickens sound by folding a slight delay onto the signal, was pioneered by Sam Phillips at Sun Studio and can be heard in all its glory on the sides Elvis Presley recorded there), and the heavy dose of reverb has been present in all kinds of music, from Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” to any number of country hits. But rather than invoking a certain era, genre, or style, the sound of Nebraska brings to mind the radio, the medium through which these techniques were first widely distributed.
The right amount of reverb and echo can make a cheap speaker in a car’s dashboard sound lush and dreamy. Nebraska’s homespun production reinforces the notion that recorded music happens across vast amounts of time and space. The guy playing and singing alone in this rented room in 1982 is connected to the person hearing it by invisible forces moving through the air. That separation, underscored by the arrangements, give the album its force.
A few songs on the record contain references to transmissions, and these people often find themselves connected to each other in the most distant ways, often by wireless. Roads are littered with radio relay towers, radios in dark cars are choked with talk shows, a cop is called to action by the crackle of the radio. “State Trooper,” a song directly influenced by “Frankie Teardrop” by the synth-punk band Suicide, is Nebraska’s atmosphere reduced to its essence, just an ominous repeating guitar and a voice that sounds like a howling ghost. A Springsteen song like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” shares thematic elements with the songs on Nebraska, but the quiet/loud motif is designed for the stage, where Springsteen and his listeners could share in the energy. “State Trooper” might as well be beamed in from an orbiting satellite—there’s the song and then there is silence.
“State Trooper” also illustrates how the automobile, central to Springsteen’s work throughout his career, functions a bit differently on Nebraska. On Born to Run, the car represented escape, while on Darkness on the Edge of Town and parts of The River it was used to define boundaries, to mark the places where the dramas of life unfold. On Nebraska, the automobile is a kind of isolation chamber, a steel husk that keeps its passengers apart from the world. “Used Cars,” a comparatively gentle song inspired by Springsteen’s own life, finds a child experiencing the shame of class difference. The family is each inhabiting their own world, the father and son unable to connect and share with each other what they might be feeling in the moment. The boy knows only by what he sees, not what his father tells him; the father, consumed with his own shame, has no sense of the boy’s experiences.
Springsteen wrote that he wanted Nebraska to consist of “black bedtime stories,” and the album almost seems to take place during one long night. Those who have jobs are working the night shift. Coming as it does at the end of the album, “Reason to Believe” feels a bit like a sunrise. Suddenly there’s a crack of light, a bit of humor; we can take a breath. The levity comes not from the details of the song, which include two shattered relationships and the death of a dog and a relative, but from the perspective of the person telling the story. Perhaps life, rather than being grim and hopeless, is merely absurd.
In the arc of Springsteen’s career, Nebraska is still a blip. It’s an essential record in the history of home recording, but it was sort of a cul-de-sac for Springsteen himself. He has returned twice to the general format of the record, releasing the mostly solo and mostly acoustic albums The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils & Dust (2005), but neither comes close to the alchemy of Nebraska. This one just happened. Springsteen covers the entire episode of the record in just a few pages in Born to Run, and there isn’t a lot to say. He wrote the songs, he put them down on a demo, and that demo became the record. It didn’t sell particularly well and got no airplay. “Life went on,” is how he ends the section of his book on the record. And so it does.