Pros:mostly interesting and thorough; other artists quoted; photo section
Cons:need to be big Springsteen fan or enjoyed most of his work
The Bottom Line: I ordered Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, but We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions sounds intriguing.
I'm somewhat embarrassed to be reviewing David Burke’s 2011 book Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. I thought I’d be getting the 1982 album with no problem from the public library because I haven’t listened to it yet and wanted to hear the songs in my head while reading the book. So I still haven’t heard the album (which I’ve ordered) and only heard snatches of the ten songs on Amazon.com. I’m embarrassed that I’m from Nebraska and haven’t even heard the album, but am reviewing an in-depth book about it and Springsteen’s songwriting from his 1973 debut to the album Working on a Dream (which I own and enjoy). I think with his album Wrecking Ball, that makes twenty-five albums so far.
Recommend this product?
Burke is quite a fan of Springsteen and has a seasoned opinion on everything the singer/songwriter has sung until the time he published this book. Each of the twenty-two chapters describes and comments on a different album as itself and in comparison to others, some chapters focus on two and the last one on none. Their titles reveal well what the chapters offer.
The discovery of the people/American spirit
Cry freedom/Trouble in the heartland
The human thing/The real badlands
Frontier material/The sound of sepia
Trial and error/Working man Americana
Street punk genius/Dark alleys
Dual identity/Clocking in
State of the union/The lazarus effect
The finality of death/Carnival ride
Soundtrack to change/Haunted road-poetry
Roseanne Cash, eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, contributes her thoughts on Nebraska and her father’s love for it along with many other artists influenced by the album in the final chapter. She muses that no singer evolves in their career, but goes through phases or stages. While writing Nebraska, Springsteen’s first solo record, he was in a deep stage where he was able to see into the heart of darkness, inspired by Ronald Reagan’s shocking election and subsequent recession. He recorded the bleak songs at home on a 4-track cassette player with only his humbled voice, his acoustic guitar and a harmonica. The studio version has never been released that I know of.
The title song leads this pack of narrative songs about ordinary Americans struggling to survive in Reaganland, setting up the dark mood and tension. It’s about a Nebraskan serial killer of 1957 (Charlie Starkweather) that Springsteen learned about from Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands, which I’ve enjoyed. The rest continues with more gritty stories from his observations of Americans across the troubled country, blending folk with country, blues, rock and gospel in a hauntingly mesmerizing way.
Nebraska is not mainstream in any sense. It wasn’t written for profit or fame, but it’s probably the most influential and intimate of his albums. Burke contends that Springsteen is not a political singer or songwriter and he’s undoubtedly right that the singer is first of all an artist following his vision that he hopes will connect with his listeners. While I haven’t listened to most of Springsteen’s music, just mainly his radio hits, I have read Heart of Darkness and better understand what he’s about. It’s not simply Burke’s opinions presented, but dozens of quotes, long and short, from singers/songwriters or other people. The album made the music industry aware that Springsteen was a serious, ballsy artist that could evoke the real America with his cinematic poetry.
This book, including a short photo section, is for big Springsteen fans as it discusses all of his songs by 2010 as well as his influences from people, events and media like the movies Badlands and The Indian Runner, the latter of which I've seen and is inspired by the Nebraska song “Highway Patrolman.” Burke passionately includes his own political opinion at least once too much and I question his assertion that jazz doesn’t have American roots. I did enjoy reading the book, but it was sometimes a little more navel-gazing or geeky than I wanted. It also frustrated me because now I really am excited about listening to the album.