Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska didn’t start out as a solo acoustic record. By the early 1980s, Springsteen had become frustrated with the time and money he’d been spent working up songs in recording studios. He wanted to front-load his demos by crafting them at home, which would allow him to bring more fully-formed ideas to the members of the E Street Band. The mechanics of this process worked out as planned; the problem was that when Springsteen brought early versions of the Nebraska songs to his bandmates, the results weren’t up to snuff. In fact, to quote Springsteen himself, fleshing out these tunes only “succeeded in making the whole thing worse.” So he went back to the beginning, returning to the material he’d originally recorded on a four-track machine in his home in New Jersey. Those high and lonesome songs had the sound and vibe he was looking for, and after carrying a cassette tape of demos around in his back pocket for a very long time, he went into the studio with his engineer, and figured out how to turn it into Nebraska. Released in 1982, Nebraska had more in common with the work of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams than it did with the party songs on The River, or with the rock ’n’ roll orgies of Springsteen’s live shows. But anyone who’d been following the Boss for this long knew of his growing interest in country music—and that fascination is all over Nebraska. The cast of characters on this record take bigger chances with their lives, which means that the stakes are higher and more brutal: The title track is Springsteen’s take on the Starkweather-Fugate murder spree, while the folks in “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” and “Highway Patrolman” are playing for the same kind of high stakes. And while Nebraska is an acoustic record, the stripped-down instrumentation allows the lyrics to land harder, and gives these songs a charge more powerful than any electric guitar solo. It’s an eerie, sometimes disturbing, always thought-provoking album.

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