The short-story writer Raymond Carver rather than a particular band or music. Carver’s stories are about the same kinds of working-class people Springsteen writes about here, and Carver also had a sentimental affection for his characters that allowed him to present them with kindness.
If anything, some of these songs could be the basis for a movie. Indeed, the 1991 film The Indian Runner used “Highway Patrolman” as the basis for its story. The title track takes some of its imagery from Terrence Malick’s Badlands. I could see “Atlantic City” being part of a film about small-time gangsters.
Nebraska arrived two years after The River, the album that solidified Bruce Springsteen’s popularity and commercial viability. The singer had already been penning songs about the difficult lives of working-class Americans, first on Darkness on the Edge of Town and continuing with The River. But with Nebraska, such protagonists were presented in a series of starkly rendered stories that treated their lives with compassion and dignity.
Springsteen initially recorded the album’s 10 songs on a Tascam four-track cassette recorder as demos that would let the E Street Band know what he had in mind when the time came to do full-group versions. The singer then discovered some of the fare he was writing functioned best in the simple arrangements of the demos. He asked Toby Scott, who worked on The River, to make the four-track recordings suitable for release on LP. The album features Springsteen’s guitar, voice, harmonica, and little else. It was released without heavy promotion and sold remarkably well.
Bob Ludwig remastered Nebraska from high-res digital files transferred using the Plangent Process, which removes wow and flutter and other anomalies from analog tape. Chris Bellman used the resulting digital file to cut the lacquers for Columbia’s LP reissue. The new edition brings me a step closer to the music. Springsteen’s voice is much more focused and out front when compared to the original LP.
The increased immediacy and detail give the music a more intimate feeling. For instance, the harmonica on the title track is more forceful than on the original pressing, but less harsh, and Springsteen’s finger-picking easier to hear. Small details make this edition of Nebraska more involving in many ways. The faint harmonica in the background of “State Trooper” increases the song’s tragic and haunted feel. Nuances that are hard to hear on the somewhat muffled original, such as the tambourine tap on “My Father’s House” and subtleties of Springsteen’s acoustic guitar playing, make the songs more vivid.
When Springsteen hits the low notes on the acoustic guitar on “Used Car,” they are more apparent, and the glockenspiel notes in the background a little cleaner without pushing too far forward. The electric guitar on “Open All Night” thumps harder, and the acoustic guitar alongside it more audible and percussive. “My Father’s House” is even more stirring here because the texture of Springsteen’s voice comes through so clearly.
Nebraska unfolds on a much deeper soundstage on this pressing, which gives Springsteen’s voice a three-dimensional quality. Not to say that I don’t miss the DIY quality of the original release, which definitely sounds more like a home recording. Its rough quality always matched the music, and for all the traits I admire about the new master, I’m sure I’ll return to the original at times.
The new pressing also moves “State Trooper,” which closed side one on the original, to the opening spot on side two. It doesn’t really change anything as far as the impact of the album goes, but the new pressing uses the original labels, so the song listing there remains unchanged. The cover features the same medium-grade cardboard as the original, but the black-and-white photos are clearer and depicted with better contrast. The flat and quiet pressing, by MPO in France, is very good—not quite RTI or Pallas quality, but comparable to Optimal in Germany.
I highly recommend this reissue of Nebraska while at the same time retaining my affection for the original pressing.
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