When Sub Pop Records announced earlier this year it was releasing a tribute to Bruce Springsteen's 1982 album Nebraska -- the one he recorded in his bedroom, the one on which he sounded like Bruce Springsteen doing Bob Dylan doing Woody Guthrie doing Bruce Springsteen -- it sounded like a novel concept, if not an awfully good idea. If Nebraska -- with its songs about serial killers and state-sponsored executions and used-car salesmen and factory workers living in the shadow of glowing mansions on the hill -- was the essential reflection of Ronald Reagan's mean-spirited America, it seemed appropriate that another generation of singer-songwriters was going to tackle and interpret these songs. Maybe they had noticed how germane the album had become again -- how eloquent it spoke not just about the barely distant then but to the here and now, a period in American history when the gulf separating the haves and have-nots is wider than ever, despite cheerleading claims of "national prosperity." Where Nebraska once lingered like a ghost, the "meanness in this world" sung about in the title track now seems solid and whole.
At the very least, one hoped that fans of such disparate artists as Aimee Mann, Hank Williams III, Deana Carter, the Pretenders, Son Volt, Ben Harper and Johnny Cash would see their heroes listed on the back of the just-released Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and seek out and purchase the original. Even now, it remains among the lowest-selling albums in Springsteen's catalogue -- oh, yes, and the best. But Badlands will likely do nothing to bolster its rep; it might even make a few people sell their copies of Nebraska to the used-CD stores. One can find no sense of urgency so essential to the original on Badlands; it's nothing more than a collection of inappropriate artists mimicking and/or butchering Springsteen, a standard tribute album that makes you wonder yet again why anyone thinks such things are tributes at all. Why, Lord, do people insist on honoring their heroes by performing the work as though none of it rubbed off?
Maybe we should have seen this coming. After all, Nebraska is of a whole -- a novel about one thing (what happens when the world, be it a lover or a job or a religion, betrays you), rather than a collection of short stories to be divvied up and handed out. It needs one voice, not a dozen; to chop it up is to kill it. Most of the artists on Badlands possess neither understanding of nor disdain for Springsteen, his legacy, his predecessors, his anything; they are therefore bereft of passion. Like radio-contest winners waiting in a room backstage, they don't have any business here, but they don't seem to know it.
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Nebraska means little to most of the musicians here; it could have been any Springsteen record, even Human Touch. Deana Carter, three Dixie Chicks in one, has said she liked the "seductive twist" of "State Trooper" -- a song about a man fleeing his family as he heads out into the dark and wet nowhere of New Jersey. Springsteen's original was dangerous, a song sung by a man with bloodshot eyes and white knuckles and a sweat-soaked shirt and a gun beneath his seat. Carter performs it like a come-on; she misses the point, and then dulls it to a nub.
So, too, do most of the other artists here: Chrissie Hynde turns the title song, in which 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather waits for his soul to be hurled into "that great void," into a monotone lullaby; Dar Williams gender-bends "Highway Patrolman" (among the 12 perfect songs ever written) until it makes no sense; and Ben Harper burns down "My Father's House" with all the care of an arsonist. Only Johnny Cash has any reason to be here -- he's covered songs from Nebraska before, on his own albums -- but his contribution, "I'm on Fire" (a Nebraska discard later resuscitated for Born in the U.S.A. and MTV) feels like an afterthought, like something left off his new album Solitary Man. Oh, joy -- the best song here could have been an outtake.
It's easy enough to understand why Sub Pop would choose this album to honor instead of, oh, Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born in the U.S.A. It's his finest, most forgotten moment, a harrowing album of straightforward, sparse narratives about what Springsteen would later call "the unknowability of God." After so many years of writing about the arrogance and ignorance of adolescence, after all those songs about boys fitting uncomfortably into adult skin while drinking and screwing on the Jersey shore, he sat down with a four-track in his bedroom and pretended he was Flannery O'Connor and Robert Johnson.
Springsteen originally intended these songs as demos for the whole band; in a note sent to manager (and former rock critic) Jon Landau that accompanied these rough sketches, he insisted over and over that these songs "need band . . . for full effect." He made these recordings sitting in a chair, singing and playing into two microphones leading into a Teac four-track, after which he would fill the remaining two tracks with harmony vocals and/or tambourine. He then mixed them using a guitar echoplex and a jambox. A bootleg of unreleased and, thus, unmastered songs from these "sessions," Fistfull of Dollars, sounds like John Lomax field recordings; you can hear the chair scraping the floor, the fingers scraping the strings. When Springsteen finally gathered the band in the studio to rerecord these songs, he discovered he had ruined them; the band only made things "worse," he recalled. "Finally satisfied that I'd explored all the music's possibilities," Springsteen wrote in 1998, "I pulled the original home-recorded cassette out of my jeans pocket where I'd been carrying it and said, 'This is it.'" And it still is.