Ryan ‘Not Bryan’ Adams has covered Bruce Springsteen‘s muted masterpiece Nebraska in its entirety. That came as a bit of a surprise. Not that it should. He has form in this area, having also issued song-for-song covers of both Taylor Swift’s 1989 album (2015) and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (2022). Adams is nothing if not resourceful. After being cancelled and then (sort of) uncancelled when charges of sexual misconduct against him were dropped after an FBI investigation, Nebraska was his sixth album of 2022, and two of them were doubles. That’s some effort. Even more admirable is the fact that he made it free to download. That at least injects some integrity into the project and suggests he did it out of genuine respect rather than as a quick cash grab, and God knows he could do with the money. His output hasn’t always been consistent, veering wildly from the stone cold classic Rock n Roll (2003) to the unchained weirdness of his sci-fi metal concept album Orion, but he’s one of those artists you have to admire, if nothing else for his unwillingness to do things by the book.
Anyway, let me try to focus on the subject at hand. Nebraska. The original was recorded at home on a 4-track by a burned out Boss in early 1982. They were intended as demos for the E Street band, then riding the crest of a wave after the soaring success of The River album and tour, to work up as their next project, but were eventually released more or less as is. As Wikipedia says, “the songs on Nebraska deal with ordinary, down-on-their-luck blue-collar characters who face a challenge or a turning point in their lives. The songs also address the subject of outsiders, criminals and mass murderers with little hope for the future—or no future at all.”
If that sounds depressing, that’s because it is. Music critic William Ruhlmann called it “one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label” and the release was seen by many Springsteen fans as a reaction to the generally sunny, positive vibes running through the majority of previous album The River. There’s no Sherry Darling or Ramrod here, though I’ve always thought Stolen Car and The Price You Pay could easily be transplanted onto Nebraska. That’s a conversation for another day.
It isn’t just the cover. The running order on Adams’ version mirrors the original too, so the first thing we here is the title track, a first-person narrative sung from the perspective of Charles Starkweather, who went on a killing spree with his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. The story goes that Springsteen was inspired to write it afters seeing the biopic Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. In fact, he liked the movie so much he’d already nicked the title and used it for a song on his seminal Darkness on the Edge of Town album. Most long-time Boss fans name either that or Born to Run as his career-defining album. Me, I’m in the former camp. Adams makes a good fist of it, and drops in a few subtle chord changes which lift the track slightly above the low-fi original. The album in general benefits from a proper production process. Granted, the original has charm and character in spades, but there’s no escaping the fact that it sounds like the set of demos it was intended to be.
Adams echoes Springsteen’s stark, often plaintive vocal delivery much of the time, but many of the tracks have been revamped or, ahem, reinterpreted to some extent. This can be quite a shock to the system on first listen, but I don’t hate it. What would be the point in faithfully adhering to every chord and nuance? If nothing else, the expression on offer gives this release a sense of identity and makes it its own animal. Johnny 99, one of my favourite tracks on the original release, is given a new breath of life as a rockabilly anthem, while Open All Night receives the opposite treatment, slowed right down with mournful vocal tones layered over the customary acoustic and harmonica accompaniment. The length is extended accordingly from 02:58 to 04:25. My Father’s House handled in a similar way, this version being longer and slower, the composition seemingly given more space to breathe.
State Trooper is perhaps given the most drastic reconstruction, this new version built upon a grungy, driving electric guitar riff which at its climax descends into an orgy of manic howls, distortion and angry reverb reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain. If you only listen to one track off this album, let this be the one. Reason to Believe is another track that has been completely reworked. Gone is that spiky three-chord acoustic riff that carries the original, to be replaced by a minimalist piano. This track is perhaps best suited to RA’s vocal range, and it’s a fitting way to close out the album. Parts of the album reminds me of the way Springsteen himself reinterpreted the tracks on his 2005 Devils & Dust solo tour where he turned multi-instrumentalist and innovator. Strangely, Adams’ version of Atlantic City, one of the tracks you would think offers itself up for reinterpretation more than any other (Springsteen himself has played numerous different versions in concert, more recently with a full band backing), largely adhere to the original.
Critics might call this self-indulgent but I quite like it. Covering a classic song takes balls, covering an entire classic album takes bigger ones, and its difficult to see what Adams can really gain from it. It seems to me he’s on a hiding to nothing. It’s getting something of a mixed response, but I kinda like it. Besides, it’s free, and it’s not often you get something for nothing. Nebraska is available to download free.
Grab it quick while you can.