Here are some scattered thoughts:
- Springsteen always structures his shows into little mini-arcs, acts, cycles of songs, whatever you want to call it, and he does exactly the same thing here. So “Growin’ Up,” “My Hometown,” “My Father’s House” and “The Wish” are all about his childhood, birthplace, father and mother respectively. Then we get stuff about the road and how it opened up his vision of America: “Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” “Born in the USA.” You get the marriage songs with Patty, his case for national despair and national hope, and then “Born to Run” ties it all up in a bow. In other words, this is super highly structured into suites, which is what he generally does though not in this precise way.
- The songs that I felt were most transformed in this setting were “My Hometown” and “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” “My Hometown” always sounded corny and sad-sacky to me in the context of arena rock; it makes a lot more sense whispered and confessed. And “Tenth Avenue” became a sort of wake for Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, all others who had been lost. It was touching and sad.
- The song that brought me to tears was “My Father’s House.” Part of what happened was I get confused between some of the tracks on Nebraska because the instrumentation and phrasing are similar, so I thought he had launched into “Reason to Believe,” a comparatively upbeat song…when I realized it was quite the opposite, it felt crushing. Part of what makes it work so well is the story of Bruce, as a child, entering the bar to retrieve his father perfectly parallels the vision of running into his father’s home. And Bruce’s perspective that we emulate those whose love we seek but don’t receive is insightful, as is his confession that the voice and stage persona he constructed is an idealized vision of his father. In his memoir Born To Run it’s clear that all of these revelations come from his years in therapy.
- But what exactly is going on with Patty? What does it mean to sing “Brilliant Disguise” with your wife of 27 years? Just to review, “Brilliant Disguise” is a song Bruce wrote in the early years of his first marriage — that was a failed marriage — and it is stunning to me that this first marriage was able to survive this song for a second. I mean, how do you hear this song from your spouse (or your own mouth) and not immediately know that you’re headed for divorce? Now you play the loving woman / I’ll play the faithful man // But just don’t look too close / Into the palm of my hand, I mean come on! I have no idea what it means that Patty is singing that song with him? Are they staring down this fear together? That she supports him in this moment of doubt? I don’t quite get it.
- Here is what I was thinking for most of the film: Bruce looks old, he sounds old. He is 69 years old, and he looks it and sounds it. This is to my mind the most artistically interesting thing about the entire enterprise. Pop music in general (rock in particular) is a genre in and about youth. It’s not that Bruce is the only aging rocker around, but I think this is the only time I’ve seen aging performed. If you go see The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney or Elton John, you can see aging denied; you can see old people act and perform young, and giving the audience a chance to experience a kind of eternal youthfulness. That’s good, that’s a natural thing for aging pop stars to do. There is also a mini-genre of dying performed — this is Johnny Cash’s last few albums, Warren Zevon playing “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While.” This is interesting too. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in pop music do quite what Bruce does in this show, which is reflect on regrets, deaths, relationships, and try to summarize a legacy in a way that only makes sense from the perspective of someone who is decidedly looking back. He looks smaller than life, which is an artistic choice; the second he goes on tour with the E Street Band he’ll be back playing that other role. But what’s special about this isn’t the setting or the music but the choice to perform as a 69 year old.
- One day Jay-Z will do a nice stint doing something similar. This particular thing might only work if you have a well-known (to your fans) legacy to deconstruct. Not very many pop artists have the longevity and penchant for myth-making to have that sort of narrative. Mr. Carter does, I’m not sure who else, though I’m sure there are others.