When it comes to influential Bruce Springsteen albums, Nebraska might be secretly lurking at the top of the list. While Born to Run was his magnum opus, Born in the U.S.A. was his crowning pop achievement, and The River continues to have a massive impact over 40 years later. But Springsteen was never more cutting edge than when he stripped in all away, recorded ten songs on a four-track recorder in his house, and basically invented lo-fi indie-folk.
“I was just doing songs for the next rock album, and I decided that what always took me so long in the studio was the writing,” Springsteen told Kurt Loder in a 1984 Rolling Stone feature. “I would get in there, and I just wouldn’t have the material written, or it wasn’t written well enough, and so I’d record for a month, get a couple of things, go home write some more, record for another month—it wasn’t very efficient.”
“So this time, I got a little Teac four-track cassette machine, and I said, ‘I’m gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin’ ’em, then I’ll teach ’em to the band.’ I could sing and play the guitar, and then I had two tracks to do somethin’ else, like overdub a guitar or add a harmony. It was just gonna be a demo,” Springsteen continues. “Then I had a little Echoplex that I mixed through, and that was it. And that was the tape that became the record.”
The results were inspired by the stark ambience of electronic punks Suicide and the classic blues of Robert Johnson. Springsteen recorded every instrument himself and refused to add any elements that took away from the desolate feeling of the original recordings. Released in between blockbuster albums The River and Born in the U.S.A., Nebraska probably could have been a career-killer had Springsteen not filled the album with some of his most poetic and affecting songs of his entire career.
‘Atlantic City’ and ‘My Father’s House’ are classic ballads that hit home to Springsteen’s Jersey roots, while ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Open All Night’ could have been raucous rockers had Springsteen brought in the E Street Band. Instead, the contrast of the souped-up guitar playing and the barren arrangement makes Springsteen sound frantic and harried instead of triumphant like he normally does.
‘Mansion on the Hill’ has all the elements of a classic Springsteen tracks: blue-collar imagery, ambition contrasted with bleak reality, and a strange sense of hope that rises above the darkness. It might sound like a dirge on Nebraska, but it has some of the album’s most potent beauty. With a gloomy atmosphere that never fully overtakes the optimism inherent in the track, is it any wonder that indie rockers The National would find resonance within ‘Mansion on the Hill’?
Bringing in their own melancholic sound, including a haunting violin line that eventually gives way to a plucky mandolin part, The National threaten to break their dalliances with folk and turn into a full-on country band. But they wear the style well, and their take on ‘Mansion on the Hill’ retains all of the atmospheric wonders of the original.
Check out The National play ‘Mansion on the Hill’ in 2006 down below.