Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, as you may very well know already, was a landmark statement of spooky hush. In 1982, after Springsteen achieved the popular acclaim (thanks to Born to Run) to match the critical kudos that he’d had in his pocket for a half-dozen years already, he stepped away from the sweaty arena-rock bombast of the E Street Band’s backing and handed his record company an album of what were, essentially, four-track demos.
Sandwiched as it was between the working-class romantics of his previous outings and Born in the USA, Nebraska’s tales of murder, emotional desolation and late-night heartland highways — stripped of all but guitar, occasional harmonica and Springsteen’s voice intimating dark, dark tales — flew in the face of conventional wisdom and won one for the songwriters.
Granted, that’s a lot of preamble to an assessment of a tribute record, but it’s crucial to understanding just how close the artists who have contributed to Badlands have stayed to the original’s tone, content and spirit. And it’s important in understanding, too, just how often we take for granted the modern singer-songwriter. Sure, there’s a hundred hacks for every poet, but when those poets shine through, it’s brilliant.
Badlands — a track-for-track cover album of Nebraska — is brilliant, populated as it is by such songwriting poets as Chrissie Hynde, Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Son Volt, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. The 10 artists were each asked to record their respective cuts using only four tracks (if not an actual four-track recording machine!). The result is often striking. Listen: Dar Williams intimates “Highway Patrolman” with a hushed, Hammond-tinted minimalism; Ani DiFranco sublimates her riot grrl-with-acoustic guitar persona to live in the quiet of “Used Cars”; and Son Volt, well, Son Volt seems to reveal, with the group’s take on “Open All Night,” just how indebted the band’s branch of the “insurgent country-Americana whatever” genre is to Nebraska. Every track is a uniformly striking reminder of the power of the tale well told. In fact, the illusion is burst only by the inclusion of three bonus tracks from other Boss records. Johnny Cash is sad and disturbing (in a bad way) intoning his karaoke version of “I’m on Fire.” The mood is ultimately revived, thankfully, by Damien Jurado and Rose Thomas’ “Wages of Sin.” Drop your cynicism and let your dim light shine — Badlands is that rare tribute that lives up to the brilliance of the original.