IS THERE anyone stumbling into the street screaming: "I have seen the future of American folk music and it's Bruce Springsteen"? Not after listening to the Boss's latest tepid sauce, a collection of 10 solo, acoustic folk songs titled "Nebraska" (Columbia TC38358). The album is, intentionally, a bleak downer, a disturbing statementk, a stark overview of the Union As We Know It Today.
In its own way, "Nebraska" is a brave step for Springsteen, who posits himself as Samson without the E Street Band's hairy strength. Like Samson, Springsteen sets out to carry an enormous moral weight, but in exposing the dilemmas of working-class life, he seems unable to resolve the questions he raises.
It's as if Springsteen has taken too seriously Marshall McLuhan's view of the "artist as early warning system" who anticipates social reality long before it becomes apparent to the masses; unfortunately there's no ideological framework, no exhortation to action. It doesn't help that Springsteen sounds like he's had to drag himself through the songs; in fact, "Nebraska" may be the most undynamic album of 1982. One applauds Springsteen's commitment, but questions its ponderous and portentous execution.
The gospel according to Springsteen includes four-minute capsules that sum up the plight of the disenfranchised, whose numbers grow as a depression widens, a recession takes its toll, and economic walls start tumbling down.
It appears that Springsteen is consciously continuing the tradition popularized by Woodie Guthrie, who did a lot of the same kind of social reporting, but he turned dust-bowl miseries and labor struggles into sources of action, inspiration and organization. Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan essayed the same moral territory in the early '50s and '60s; even today, activist Si Kahn splits his time between organizing and drawing vivid portraits of the working class, poor and the oppressed. But while Kahn refuses to surrender to the weight he carries, Springsteen buckles under; where he was once blinded by the light, he now seems hounded by the blight.
Beyond Springsteen's emotional commitment and deep identification with the working class, there's too little right about "Nebraska." It was recorded on a four-track cassette recorder, originally intended as a demo tape of possible songs for a new E Street Band album. However, somebody convinced Springsteen and Columbia that the songs stood on their own and the record company, after a little enhancement, chose to release them as is, audio verite', as it were. Still, the horrid and decidedly flat quality of the sound is inexcusable.
Except for the title tune, the 10 songs on "Nebraska" inhabit a familiar industrial topography of late-night joints, fast cars cruising turnpikes, spent relationships, lost jobs and found troubles, in-laws, outlaws and lawmen; the redemptive qualities of radio and rock 'n' roll. But where Springsteen's words used to race by, fleet and flash, they now slink by as if they're ashamed of the flat melodies they've been consigned to. Individually, the songs could stand strong; massed together, their sameness wears thin.
Each song does retain Springsteen's familiar "vignette" shape: The protagonist in "Atlantic City," having "more debts than an honest man can pay," starts hanging out with "the racket boys" because "down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line . . . well, I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end."
In the title tune, an odd corollary to Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," he steps inside the mind of mass murderer Charles Starkweather who, with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, murdered 11 people (Springsteen credits him with 10) in the late '50s; Springsteen-as-Starkweather sits judged and condemned, an extreme victim of life's circumstances, the insanity written off as "a meanness in this world." Unfortunately, it's an interpretation totally at odds with the facts; Springsteen chooses to ignore the coldblooded and mindless violence and overlook its true inspiration.
There is a surfeit of outlaws on "Nebraska," and their ends always seem to justify their meanness. "Johnny 99," who also has "debts no honest man could pay," loses his job (in the auto plant, natch), gets drunk, shoots a night clerk, gets sent up (but not before asking the judge to execute him for "the thoughts that's in his head"). Joe Roberts is the "Highway Patrolman" who chooses family over the law ("nothin' feels better than blood on blood"), letting brother Franky escape over the Canadian border after a little roadhouse trouble: "Man turns his back on his family well he just ain't no good." Makes you wonder about the "kid lyin' on the floor lookin' bad bleedin' hard from his head."
Just to show that he can work both sides of the fence, an exhausted, paranoid Springsteen warns the "State Trooper" to stay out of his way: the nearly amelodic tune bumbles to the anticlimactic "hey somebody out there, listen to my last prayer, hi ho silver-o deliver me from nowhere," a line so good Springsteen uses it again two songs later to close "Open All Night." In "Nebraska" Springsteen often seems to be plagiarizing himself. "State Trooper" and "Open All Night" seem to share a geography of the mind: "early north Jersey industrial skyline . . . New Jersey in the mornin' like a lunar landscape . . . radio relay towers jammed with talk show stations in one song, 'gospel stations' in the other . . . wee wee hours . . . refinery towers,"perhaps the result of releasing tapes not originally intended for public consumption.
There are some good songs on "Nebraska:" a haunting "Mansion on the Hill" (not the Hank Williams classic, but close enough), a desperate "Reason to Believe" (not the Tim Hardin classic) and an elegiac "My Father's House" (with its caustic dream/memory catharsis); all bristle with the kind of internalized energy absent from the other songs. However, they sound like covers of Townes Van Zandt songs, which in turn often sounded like borrowed folk melodies; "Nebraska" will be a revelation only to those who've never heard Van Zandt's personally apocalyptic music.
Only three songs hint at the electric possibilities of the material: the bustling "Johnny 99," the nervous "State Trooper," and "Open All Night," with its Chuck Berry bottom (and the only use of electric guitar, subdued as it is). Few songs suggest any real hope for better times: "Now mister the day my number comes in I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again," Springsteen promises in "Used Cars." "Atlantic City" and "Reason to Believe" do couch their pain in metaphors of possibility: "Well I guess everything dies, baby, that's a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back," and, "still, at the end of every hard-earned pay people find some reason to believe." Unfortunately, the man who writes these last-minute defenses doesn't seem to believe his own words.