Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska confounded a lot of people when he released it in 1982. Probably still does, especially among recently converted followers. I mean, how do you explain it someone who’s yet to hear it? I tried in my book Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, writing this:
Nebraska is raw, primitive, ancient, otherworldly, spiritual, nihilistic, heartbreaking, horrifying and a whole bunch of other things that come to you like apparitions whenever you enter its province (ideally under cover of darkness)….And like the great films and the great novels, it holds up well. It holds up well because it still has something to teach us about ourselves and the world we live in, and maybe even the world beyond this one.
Just as Springsteen was inspired by Woody Guthrie and Flannery O’Connor and Night of the Hunter and Suicide and Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese on Nebraska, so too has Nebraska become a touchstone for artists of myriad forms – Bruised Orange theatre company’s The Nebraska Project, Tennessee Jones’ short story collection Deliver Me from Nowhere, and Sean Penn’s directorial debut The Indian Runner, based on the song “Highway Patrolman.”
And then there is, of course, the tribute album, Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, helmed by producer and filmmaker Jim Sampas.
In a 2007 interview Sampas told me, “I thought about getting everybody to record on a four-track – that would be a hook to draw in people in a way that wasn’t like the normal tribute album. It’s more challenging and back to basics as opposed to these 24-track and 48-track recordings everybody was doing. This was a record that had influenced so many people. I really thought that the folks who were involved had to have similar sensibilities and styles to Springsteen.”
Although this minimalist approach to recording rekindled the spirit of Nebraska, Sampas wasn’t interested in fidelity to Springsteen’s original arrangements (an odd word, this, as Nebraska wasn’t arranged so much as it just happened). Instead, he wanted to hear everything “in a very stark way, with no big effects.” He added, “I wasn’t so concerned about how the thing sounded from a sonic perspective, in that I didn’t want everything to be crisp and crystal clear. Almost all of the artists recorded in their homes, similar to what Springsteen was doing on the original record.”
The Badlands roster includes Chrissie Hynde, Johnny Cash, Los Lobos, Hank Williams III and Ani DiFranco. It is, for the most part, a tad too reverential, as if all concerned are nervous of trampling over hallowed ground. Mind you, they could be inhibited by Sampas’ insistence on that rudimentary recording process. There is slightly more adventure musically than vocally, with nobody daring to mimic Springsteen’s spooky delivery. Crooked Fingers’ “Mansion On the Hill” – despite sounding as if it’s been haunted by the guitarist ghost of two riffs, your man from U2 – go big in a small space. Frontman Eric Bachmann explained, “I did the exact opposite of what Nebraska was production-wise, and made the sounds wider and more processed, with timed delay on the piano in particular. I also sampled a fiddle from Hank Williams’ ‘Mansion On the Hill’ and placed it at the end of the song to tie to its roots as best I could. I’m not a purist though, so I didn’t do that to satisfy any musical morality I have. It just sounded cool to me at the time and still does.”
Elsewhere, Los Lobos turn “Johnny 99” into swinging Tex-Mex; you can almost hear Ben Harper’s rocking chair on a pastoral, down-home version of “My Father’s House”; while Son Volt infuse “Open All Night” with a club-footed waltz kind of vibe. Dar Williams does “Highway Patrolman” pretty much as Dar Williams – which is not, by the way, a criticism. Ani DiFranco’s “Used Cars” is both beautifully strange and strangely beautiful. Hank Williams III’s “Atlantic City” is just strange, as he plumps for a country hoedown, replete with (Gold help us) yodeling, more comedy than tragedy. Even Sampas himself was perplexed by this one: “I actually had to edit it. It was much longer. The raucous kind of thing he does with it, it’s playful. But the thing about these tribute albums, people either love them or hate them.”
While Badlands reprises Nebraska in its entirety, it’s augmented by three additional tracks Springsteen wrote around the same time – “Downbound Train” (Raul Malo), “Wages of Sin” (Damien Jurado) and Johnny Cash’s “I’m On Fire.” Cash had already covered “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman” on his 1983 album Johnny 99. He had wanted to do “Highway Patrolman” on Badlands, but Sampas had already designated it to Dar Williams.
Sampas recalled, “His manager couldn’t understand that I wouldn’t give him a track and he got a bit funny about it. This was Johnny Cash and if he wants that song, by God, he’s going to get it. When I spoke to the manager, he was surprised that I had waited so long. He was a little frustrated. It was kind of dumb on my part. He should have been one of the first people I thought of.”
The trouble with Badlands, conspicuous homage though it is, lies in the fact that it’s not Nebraska and it’s not Springsteen singing those songs with that equipment in that place at that time. A time when the man behind the myth was breaking down, months away from a devastating depressive episode about which he would write with laudable candor in his wonderful memoir Born to Run. All of these elements coalesced to engender something maverick that may have been momentary but remains a magnificent mystery.
For my money, as an artistic statement, Nebraska is unparalleled among Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre. Springsteen felt back then it was his best work. Four decades on, he admitted that it still might be. I’d go along with that. And if Badlands falls short, well, there’s no shame in being a step or two behind the Boss at his best.