Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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BADLANDS
Sub/Pop

Never having considered the living-room provenance of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska the best thing about it, I have no problem in principle with the notion of alt-etc. heroes covering it in exact sequence at a higher level of production--even though one reason said heroes love or respect it is its DIY credentials. The other reason, of course, is that the songs are so damn grim--not counting the closing "Reason to Believe," Springsteen would have sounded silly transforming them into anthems, bathetic elevating them into melodramas.

All such projects have built-in drawbacks, however. Not every participant will be equally into it, much less on the same page conceptually, and all informed listeners will be compelled to listen through not one but two sets of biases, regarding first the songs and then the singers. So I'm surprised to note that two of my personal faves are by artists I either can't stand--Son Volt's generically mournful "Open All Night," which would have made as lousy a party song as "Johnny 99" does in the hands of my beloved Los Lobos--or could care less about--Deana Carter's eerily electronic "State Trooper," which signifies more sharply than the bitterly electronic "Used Cars" by my beloved Ani DiFranco.

A less personal judgment is that the only interpreter who truly nails anything here is Johnny Cash, whose "I'm on Fire" is one of three bonus tracks. Another is that Dar Williams's perfectly well-sung "Highway Patrolman" (which Cash once did better than Springsteen himself) typifies what's most deeply wrong about the concept. Williams may think it's nifty for a woman to sing a lyric explicitly designed for a man without adjusting it for gender. I think it reduces songs that were holy missions for their creator into mere works of art--museum pieces that deserve better.

Rolling Stone, 2000